Back in February, I posted a review of Miracle, the 2004 film adaptation of the legendary moment in Olympics history where the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team upset the Soviet Union Men’s Hockey Team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. I was even able to get it out on February 22nd, the exact date that marked the 40th anniversary of the iconic ‘Miracle on Ice’, which I felt was a more timely date for its publication rather than the film’s 15th anniversary back in 2019 which, granted, would’ve also been in February. However, Miracle is not the only Disney-produced sports film that’s based on a true story that I was planning on reviewing this year. For you see, this year marks the 20th anniversary of a film that is quite easily one of my favorite films of all-time. It’s a film that is very much in the running for holding the distinction of being the one film that I’ve watched the most in my life, which also makes it one of my top candidates when it comes to the most quotable films ever made. However, another big reason why it has left such a considerable impact on those who’ve watched it is because of its powerful messages of unity during divided times, which I feel makes it a timeless masterpiece… and let’s be real, folks, 2020 has thoroughly reinforced that stance. A few months ago, the U.S. was rocked by multiple instances of police brutality against folks such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that, unfortunately, were only the most recent cases of police brutality towards members of the Black community. Because of this, the ongoing political/social movement that is Black Lives Matter has expanded significantly to combat this major facet of America’s long-standing problem with racism. But while today’s post isn’t going to be any kind of significant commentary on this situation (since I will fully admit that I’m in no way an expert on the matter), it will instead be a celebration of a film that I strongly believe is essential viewing during these difficult times. And so, without further ado, let’s delve into the masterpiece that is Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ 2000 production, Remember the Titans.
It is 1971, and in the city of Alexandria, Virginia, the local high schools are consolidated into a single institution, T.C. Williams, to help desegregate Alexandria’s black and white communities. Naturally, this causes plenty of racial divide across the area and it only proceeds to get worse when, as part of this new initiative, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is hired to be the school’s new head football coach, replacing longtime playcaller Bill Yoast (Will Patton). But while Yoast initially plans to move on with his life and take a job somewhere else, he soon realizes that he’ll have to stick around when all the white players who have played under him threaten to quit the team rather than play for a black coach. Thus, Yoast agrees to be Boone’s defensive coordinator as Boone begins his efforts to coach a team made up of black and white players. Obviously, things start off on a rough note due to the clear racial tensions between them all, especially between Yoast’s defensive captain, linebacker Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), and all-star defensive end Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), one of Boone’s key recruits. And if that wasn’t enough, Boone eventually learns that because the school board is highly doubtful that this little social experiment of theirs is going to work at all, they will not hesitate to fire him at the first sign of trouble (or, in other words, just a single loss). Thus, through both devastating hardships and uplifting moments of prosperity, the Titans slowly but surely begin to band together as they embark on a legendary season that will truly unite their divided city.
Now the first thing to note about this film is that, just like any film that’s based on a true story, it does admittedly take a few liberties with what really happened in Alexandria in 1971, like how the car crash that left Gerry Bertier paralyzed occurred after the State Championship rather than before it. Ultimately, though, the biggest difference between this film and the real-life events that inspired it is that, based on what I’ve read, the former intensified the racial tension that was going on in Alexandria when, in reality, a lot of it had cooled down by the time that the Titans embarked on their legendary season. And yet, regardless of whether some of the biggest moments in this film truly happened or not, that doesn’t take anything away from the emotional heft of this story and its universal themes such as love, brotherhood, and accepting people based on character rather than the color of their skin. Whether it’s a major subplot such as Yoast exposing a crooked referee conspiracy by the school board to sabotage their season or specific sequences such as members of the team being denied service at a restaurant for being black, this film is full of big emotional moments and it hits them all wonderfully. However, this film is also much more than just a drama as all its intense emotional moments are matched excellently with a lot of great humorous moments that stem from the banter between its characters, which is key to the whole ‘one of the most quotable films ever made’ aspect that I mentioned earlier. The film also sports a terrific soundtrack, and I’m not just referring to its selection of classic songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Spirit in the Sky”. There’s also Trevor Rabin’s phenomenal score that’s primarily represented by the track “Titans Spirit”, an epic 7-minute piece that runs the full gamut of moods from slow and serene to pulse-poundingly triumphant.
Another key aspect of this film’s success is its excellent ensemble cast, headlined, of course, by the one and only Denzel Washington as coach Herman Boone. Right out the gate, Boone is immediately established as being one hell of a strict coach who isn’t afraid to put his team through an incredibly tough training regimen to turn them into a winning team. But thanks to Washington’s natural charisma as a leading man, we’re still able to empathize with Boone given all the pressure that he’s under to set a good example for not only his family, but also his peers, his players, and the people of Alexandria. Washington is then naturally complemented by Will Patton as Coach Bill Yoast, who serves as a perfect foil to Boone as the Titans’ more calm and collected coach by comparison but one who’s still able to dish out some tough love when necessary. As for the rest of the cast, one of the most unique aspects of this film (when looking back at it nowadays) is how much of the cast is made up of actors and actresses who would go on to become major stars in their own right, such as Hayden Panettiere as Yoast’s football-loving daughter Sheryl. As for the Titans themselves, you have guys like Donald Faison, Ethan Suplee, and Ryan Gosling… and that’s just to name a few. And while I don’t want this review to turn into some kind of comparison piece, if there’s one big advantage that this film has over Miracle, it’s that it’s a lot more balanced when it comes to focusing on certain members of the team. While Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst clearly get the most attention out of all the team’s players given the rivalry between Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier that evolves into a genuinely heartwarming brotherhood, the film makes a great effort to highlight as many players as possible. As such, we get a whole bunch of memorable characters such as lovable lineman Louie Lastik, who hopes to become the first in his family to go to college, California transfer Ronnie ‘Sunshine’ Bass, who rises up to become the team’s star quarterback, and sympathetic fast-talker Petey Jones, whose boastful nature often sees him getting directly chewed out by Coach Boone.
Now, before we conclude today’s review, I just wanted to delve into a quick personal story that will hopefully provide some more insight as to why this film is one of my all-time favorites. Even after all this time, I still remember going to see this film in theaters back when it first came out in 2000, and while I don’t necessarily remember the following detail, my folks have frequently told me that we went to go see it with the Woonsocket High School Football team. My dad was the team’s Head Coach at the time, and while he would eventually step down from the position to transition into education, he would still be heavily involved with the football team every year, especially once he became Woonsocket’s athletic director. Cut to 2009, and the team is now coached by one of my Dad’s best friends, who sadly suffered a personal tragedy that year when his older brother passed away in September. Not long after the team’s next game (which resulted in a loss), my dad decided to hold a film screening at the high school for them, and as you probably guessed, the film in question… was Remember the Titans. And to be perfectly blunt, I do believe that it gave the team the morale boost that it sorely needed. Not only would they end up winning the Rhode Island International League’s Division II-A Super Bowl that year, but in a run that quite arguably mirrored the perfect season that the Titans managed to pull off, they didn’t lose a single game after that previously mentioned loss. They even managed to achieve a bunch of big shutouts; several in a row, even. Thus, while I’m not saying that I believe that it was the key factor behind the team’s successful season, I can safely say that I’ve very much witnessed how this film can truly inspire those who watch it on a firsthand basis.
Like I said before, though, I know that this is far from being the most accurate ‘based on a true story’ sports film when compared to the real-life events that inspired it. It is, after all, a sentiment that has been shared with several members of the 1971 T.C. Williams Titans football team. In the film’s defense, however, this is just something that’s to be expected from any film that’s based on a true story. I can even imagine some folks arguing that, since this is a Disney production, it’s a heavily sanitized take on a story about the horrors of racism. And yet, even though I will openly admit that I wouldn’t necessarily consider this to be the absolute best film that has ever tackled the subject of racism, that doesn’t mean that it’s any ‘lesser’ by comparison for being a blockbuster that’s intentionally trying to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. At the end of the day, this film is just as successful at being a heartwarming tale of solidarity in times of hardship as it is a wholly entertaining sports flick with a great soundtrack and an endless array of quotable lines. Plus, to be perfectly frank, folks, watching this in 2020 in the wake of all the crap we’ve endured this year (especially when it comes to the many incidents that have reinforced this country’s continuing issues with systemic racism) can be quite an experience. In other words, certain race-related moments in this film that were already tough to watch back when it first came out are arguably even harder to watch today because they can remind us that, even after all this time… we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to combatting racism. And so, with all that in mind, I will simply reinforce the statement that I made at the beginning of this review where I strongly believe that Remember the Titans is a film that is the very definition of ‘essential viewing’. I know that I may be rather biased about this given how many times I’ve seen this film, but for all its imperfections, none of that even remotely prevents it from being not only one of the best sports films ever made… but also one of my favorite films of all-time.
“Anybody know what this place is? This is Gettysburg. This is where they fought the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting amongst ourselves today. This green field right here, painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pouring right through their bodies. Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe… I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.”