Cinema Signal:
. "Remember the Titans"

Two things are true about almost every sports picture: (1) They are formulaic by nature as "our hero's team" plays other teams; games are won and lost to achieve the best dramatic effect; and they end (usually) in winning against odds; and, (2) there is built in drama in any kind of contest.

Number two is equally true in courtroom dramas where one side is pitted against the other. The object for the storyteller then, is to make us root for the side he wants us to, which requires, in a sports movie, that he make us care about the team or at least one of the players. This is achieved through the particulars of the character's life and the drama unfolding in it. No problem, as this pivotal requirement is placed in the able hands of Denzel Washington.

In "Remember the Titans", Bill Yoast, the hugely successful white coach of a Virginia high school football team (Will Patton) is replaced because of race integration (1971) by Herman Boone, a black coach with a fairly good resume (Denzel Washington) but with local support only from his racial peers and none at all by the people who control things around town. This encounter turns a sports story into a discussion of racial hatreds and stereotyping and how they ideally become ameliorated by the need for team play. If anything, it strains credulity but is purported to be based on a true story.

As we follow each player's wrestle with the particulars of integration, we get a cross section of how society deals with racial discrimination when it's forced to. Sink, swim or get out of the water and we witness examples of all these choices. Most of all, that of Coach Yoast who finally opts to remain as Coach Boone's assistant in charge of the defensive squad. He seems to be a bit ahead of the curve in recognizing and finally embracing societal reality. He manages to put his personal ambition aside for the greater good of the team and sets an example for the youthful minds and bodies as they sally forth upon the gridiron to win one game after another in a winning season.

The results of the integration is a synergy, in which each ethnic component's individual abilities is brought to a higher level. The combining of blood and spirit from two diverse groups produces an organism with the best of each contributor resulting in greater power. That power is tested on the field but not without a few heartbreaks and threats along the way.

Boaz Yakim's direction doesn't overcome the usual limitations of staging football action convincingly. The choreography of the plays show through, as does the editing and control within the game situations. If you want a real game, go to one. This is game playing within movie frames.

As said, it is inescapably formulaic, and somewhat simplistic in its idealism, but it's a long way from "Never on Sunday"'s self absorption. Moreover, the acting and casting is top pick, highlighted by Denzel Washington's fierce opinionating and single-mindedness. Will Patton is totally impressive in the way he remains sympathetic and complex.

Eleven-year-old Hayden Panettiere plays Sheryl Yoast, Coach's idolizing eight-year-old daughter with the football knowledge of any sportscaster. Her "coaching of the coaches" is pure fantasy but it's couched in a devilish, demanding performance -- perhaps a tad overdone but I forgive them. We'll certainly keep our eye on this little lady who already has a filmography a yard long.

Finally, we come to Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of "Top Gun", "Armageddon", "Coyote Ugly" and other high octane thrillers who produced this no-blowup message movie. Even though it's targeted at the young male, it's sociological theme makes us ask, "aren't the mellowing effects of maturity interesting?" Of course, we should expect that a more typical Bruckheimer film isn't very far off -- especially given the immediate success of this one.

Just as a side note, I feel the title could have been improved. I would have preferred, "The Year of the Titans". See if you agree.

Estimated cost: $30,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $115,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:

Being in school in Virginia in 1970, I can testify that this film is realistic in every way.

                            ~~ Margaret Lawrence

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