All the OK moves
Over the last few decades, football biopics have emerged as the predominant form of male-geared tearjerkers, taking over the spot once held by baseball movies and westerns. Even as the sport has taken on a more sinister edge in light of recent off-the-field incidents, as well as increasing awareness of and scientific evidence about the long-term effects of concussions, the big screen portrayals of football have only grown rosier. It’s rare these days to see a film that portrays the sport as inherently corrupt, as we’ve seen in previous decades with North Dallas Forty, Against All Odds, and The Last Boy Scout, among others. More often these days, the movies portray football as the ultimate healer.
Fictional football movies such as the recent Kevin Costner vehicle Draft Day, which treats NFL draft preparation as though it were a midlife crisis therapy session, can be just as macho and saccharine, but “based on a true story” football tearjerkers have been reproducing like rabbits. The ancestor of the movement is the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song, about the friendship between Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at age 26. However, the current mold was forged by the 1993 basic cable staple Rudy, which was “based on a true story” of an undersized but persistent Notre Dame walk-on who finally made it on to the field in the closing minutes of his final game.
The triumph of the protagonist in Rudy was not that he helped Notre Dame win a championship or defeat their rivals; it was that he got on the field at all, even if his role in the outcome of the game was meaningless. That’s a common theme in these “based on a true story” football tearjerkers—the importance of playing through adversity, whether it’s a lack of physical stature (Rudy), racial intolerance (Remember the Titans), tragedy (We Are Marshall), inexperience (Invincible), poverty (The Blind Side), juvenile delinquency (Gridiron Gang), or Cuba Gooding Jr. (Radio).
Besides proliferating on the big screens, such “based on a true story” football biopics have also been easy ratings grabbers on television. Dylan Baker’s 23 Blast falls somewhere in between—it’s getting a run in theaters, and it has the family-friendly, faith-based credentials to pull in an audience, but the production values and cast are decidedly television-sized. This is the directorial debut of the noted character actor Baker, still probably best known as the pedophile dad in Happiness, and he has a good touch with actors and tone without ever establishing a visual sensibility or deviating too far from the tropes of the genre.
23 Blast is “based” on the “true story” of Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), a star athlete in the football-obsessed town of Corbin, Ky., who lost his sight when he developed a bacterial infection. Overnight, he turns from a beloved and driven BMOC into a morose, self-imposed outcast. His mother is told, “You no longer have a normal son,” and she is encouraged to enroll him in a school for the blind. But with the support of his family and an Anne Sullivan-esque, tough-love mobility coach, Travis returns to high school. When the football team struggles, he’s even recruited by his old coach (Stephen Lang, very good) to rejoin the team. Not only does this demand immense courage and dedication from Travis, but it also inspires some of the more self-interested players to become better teammates.
One of the executive producers on the film is Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, a man not exactly famed for his sensitivity and tolerance, yet 23 Blast does a nice job projecting sincerity without crossing over into sentimentality.
Along with screenwriters Bram and Toni Hoover, Baker imbues the film with a warm and welcome sense of humor, keeping the focus on believable adolescent shenanigans despite casting some of the oldest-looking teenagers since Porky’s 3: Revenge. For the most part, the film also takes a soft enough touch with the religious elements, keeping the hardcore proselytizing to a relative minimum. Rather than jerk at your tears, 23 Blast just gives them a gentle tug.