Heart to tackle

The Blind Side

“You understand English? Get on that field and put him on his ass.”

“You understand English? Get on that field and put him on his ass.”

Rated 4.0

With her performance in The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock atones for All About Steve. And The Proposal. And Premonition. And Gun Shy. She redeems every mortifying misstep in her spotty but still-promising career (yes, even Speed 2 and both Miss Congenialitys put together). This is her best performance since Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), when she was an unknown stealing the movie out from under Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine and Piper Laurie (a year away from her big break in Speed). But more than that, the best thing about The Blind Side is that Sandra Bullock isn’t the best thing about it.

The movie tells the story of Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens’ first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Oher may well be headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he’s still midway in his first season. This may be the first time a rookie athlete has been the subject of a major Hollywood biopic. But why wait? The story of how Oher went from his unpromising boyhood in Memphis to the Ravens’ starting line has enough heart-tugging inspiration to fuel half a dozen Frank Capra movies; we might as well wring some warmth out of it now.

And The Blind Side is expertly wrought, the kind of movie that could wind up giving inspirational sports pictures a good name.

Director John Lee Hancock’s script is culled from the book by Michael Lewis. Lewis’ subtitle was Evolution of a Game, and much of his text dealt with the subtleties of football strategy as it developed over the past few decades. That may seem unlikely movie material, but Lewis illustrated his thesis with Oher’s rise against daunting personal odds, and that was good enough for Hancock and Hollywood.

So, it is that we first meet “Big Mike” Oher, played by newcomer Quinton Aaron, whose razor-sharp, still-waters-run-deep performance shows that he knows as much as the 1993 Bullock about how to steal a movie from established stars. A ward of the state since being taken from his crack-addicted mother, Big Mike is sleeping on the sofa of a compassionate friend, who gets his own son and Mike into an exclusive private school, where Mike’s size and athletic prowess prompt the football coach (Ray McKinnon) to persuade the school to overlook, at least for the time being, Mike’s 0.6 grade-point average.

The teachers are hesitant, but gradually they come to realize that Mike’s years of repeated bad grades are due more to academic and social neglect than to a lack of native intelligence. When he is taken into the home of a Memphis fast-food entrepreneur, Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw, easygoing and sympathetic) and his wife, Leigh Anne (Bullock), he at last finds the kind of domestic security that will enable him to improve his grades to a level that makes a college scholarship a possibility.

He begins to open up emotionally, too. Encouraged by Leigh Anne, “Tell me something about yourself,” he speaks what is practically the first full sentence we hear from him: “I don’t like being called Big Mike.”

Quinton Aaron’s virtual silence during the first half-hour of The Blind Side emphasizes his imposing physical presence. At 6 feet 9 inches and 350 pounds, he’s even bigger than the real Oher, but it makes dramatic sense. He looks like a mountainous Gulliver exploring Lilliput; he towers over not only his fellow students but every adult as well.

The fact that Aaron isn’t speaking doesn’t mean he isn’t acting. As Michael regards his surroundings with a wary gaze, we can see him appraising and cataloging everything and everyone he sees. He is so impassive that it’s understandable that the unobservant might believe him to be stupid, but we can see otherwise. Aaron’s face seems expressionless but it’s not; what he gives us is, in fact, an amazing economy of expression. He makes us feel as if we are reading Oher’s mind.

Hancock’s career has been almost as spotty as Bullock’s, but like Bullock, he’s at the top of his game here. He coaxes her to her best performance in years and gets a real star-making turn out of Aaron. Just when you think you’ve seen enough live-your-dream sports movies to last a lifetime, along comes one that makes all the others worth the trouble.