A Shakespeare play . . .
If not the greatest game ever played, certainly the 1913 US Open, where 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) defeated reigning champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), would have to rank in the top five. Rare it is for any amateur to win a professional tournament; for an American to take it from the defending Brit champion and another top Brit was unthinkable at the turn of the last century.
Director Bill Paxton has learned a thing or two from sentimentalist Gary Ross, whose Seabiscuit (2003) is for me the most recent touchstone for all underdog, American-overcoming-odds films. Paxton doesn't miss a chance to show how difficult breaking social barriers was in both Britain and America in 1913. Only by socially powerful interventions can Ouimet play the courses on which he caddies, much less compete as a poor man and amateur in tournaments such as the US Open. But the music and sympathetic close-ups assure us that he will make it as a golfer if not as a socially equal club member.
Even more sentimental is Ouimet's difficulty in dating the daughter of a prominent family and convincing his laborer father that golf is a worthy endeavor. Paxton plays all the elements too heavily at the risk of courting clich? and losing "true story" status. Yet the pint-sized caddy Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter) with the quick aphorisms about playing and winning is an effective way of delivering humor and humanity without the sentimentality.
Paxton's best effort is using special effects to help us feel the challenges of the game. Often we follow the ball as if we were riding it, careering behind it, or seeing its point of view. Sometimes a graceful swing sends the ball into the audience (Is Paxton thinking 3-D?). A few times British champion Harry Vardon surveys the crowds before his swing and thereby effaces them to gain a singularly pure view of his shot. Wimbledon (2004) also used similar effects plus voice-over of the athlete's thoughts, but that was a far less effective film.
Unfortunately Paxton also has Harry seeing for too many times four dark-clad elders who had moved his family from Jersey to build a golf course. Just as annoying is cutting to Ouimet's disgruntled father as a distraction.
The Greatest Game Ever Played tries, and often succeeds, in fulfilling Harold Segall's romantic description of the game: "Golf is not just exercise; it is an adventure, a romance.... a Shakespeare play in which disaster and comedy are intertwined [and] you have to live with the consequences of each action."