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No other genre of film champions faith themes more than the sports movie. MacFarland USA, When the Game Stands Tall, The Blind Side, 42—the list could go on, and those are just from the last few years.
But many of these films tone down the Christianity of the real-life people who inspired the story to a quick prayer before a game or a shot of a family attending church. The Erwin brothers, the directing/screenwriting duo who brought audiences October Baby and Mom’s Night Out, get much more specific with their faith-based football flick, Woodlawn. Reminiscent of Remember the Titans, it tells the true story of the integration of an Alabama high-school football team and the rise of former Miami Dolphins running back, Tony Nathan (nicely played by Caleb Castille).
What the PG-rated Woodlawn does well, it does very well, giving audiences not just a context for the reverberations of racial strife we’re still feeling today, but also a vision for the only solution to overcoming that strife. The turning point doesn’t come near the end when the coach gives a motivational speech that leads to a big win (in fact, the coach’s speeches don’t seem to have much impact at all). Instead, it comes early on when an uninvited evangelist (Sean Astin), inspired by the Billy Graham crusade, barges into practice and preaches until the entire team is won to Christ.
Unfortunately, for all its skillfully executed parts, Woodlawn’s whole lacks focus. Is this the story of how an entire football team’s conversion impacts a small Alabama town? Is it the origin story of a Super Bowl–winning athlete? Is it the story of a doubting coach whose cynicism is slowly dismantled by the belief of his players? Woodlawn spends so much time chasing all these threads that none of them manages to have the impact they could have had alone.
Still, the cast is impressive (Jon Voigt steals scenes as the legendary Bear Bryant), and along with some deftly edited early scenes, they provide a palpable sense of the hope and energy of the Billy Graham era.
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