In this movie, a father tells his son that one great touchdown by Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles got him through 30 years of factory work. We often identify so completely with the teams and athletes we love that it feels like our hearts are in that ball as it crosses the goal line, swishes into the basket, or sails over the head of the guy in the outfield. Maybe our dreams don’t come true, but we can share the dreams of the guys on the field. And that is the stuff of movies.
Vince Papale, a part-time teacher and bartender became the oldest non-kicker rookie in NFL history when he joined the Philadelphia Eagles at age 30 in 1976. That sounds like a Disney movie.
Mark Wahlberg plays Papale, a passionate season-ticket-holding Eagles fan who is picked from an open try-out though he had never played college football. He was selected by coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) and survived training camp to play on the team.
So, we know where it’s all going from the beginning, and how successful it is in making that journey work depends on whether it can make us care about the characters. Unforunately, while it has a nicely gritty sense of time and place, some touching moments, and many very bad 1970’s hairstyles, its beats are all too telegraphed and formulaic to fully engage us.
Wahlberg brings sincerity and an easy athleticism to the role of Papale, and Elizabeth Banks has a lovely centered quality and genuine sparkle as his love interest. But the script — the disapproving wife who exits just in time for him to meet the beautiful girl who knows all about football, the down-on-their-luck friends who want to make sure that he doesn’t forget about them, the coach with high standards who is willing to take a chance, the dad who cautions him not to try for something he can’t have and then watches damp-eyed as he makes it — there’s not enough to surprise and engage us. I couldn’t help thinking as I watched Papale run through the streets of 1976 Philadelphia that maybe he’d meet up with Rocky.
Parents should know that there are a few moments of sports violence and some references to sad deaths of family members. Wahlberg’s character is a bartender, and there are many scenes in the bar with characters drinking. A character refers to a married boyfriend. Characters kiss. Some audience members may be disturbed by the break-up of Vince’s marriage and the struggles to trust enough to start a new relationship.
A main theme of the film is the encouragement and support Papale receives from friends and family. Many of his friends are portrayed as supportive, but Papale is presented as having been driven by the handful of people in his life who told him he couldn’t do it. Why did he put his wife’s note in his locker? Families who see this film should talk about the importance of having a support network, and why sometimes adversity can be the strongest motivator. Do you agree that the team with character will find a way to be the team with talent? What current athletes do and don’t meet that standard?
Families who enjoyed this movie have a wealth of football and sport-oriented films to choose from, and many are filled with remarkable sequences and riveting drama. Recommendations would be Rudy, in which Sean Astin conquers his limitations to play for Notre Dame, Paper Lion, an older (1968) film featuring a journalist who goes undercover as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions (based on a true story), and Friday Night Lights, the story of a season with The Permian High Panthers, The Replacements (some mature material), a fictional story about an all-amateur team, and a similar real-life story about a teacher who became a major league pitcher in Disney’s The Rookie. They may also want to learn more about the history of the team. And families who want to know more about the real Vince Papale, who was voted Special Teams Captain and “Man of the Year” by the Eagles, can visit his website and read his book.