As earnest and well-intentioned as any Stanley Kramer movie, “Remember the Titans” grapples with the civil rights struggle with an almost cartoonlike simplicity and naivete. Using the true story of the forced integration of a 1971 Virginia high school football team to show how we can all get along if race and background are put aside for the sake of the common goal of scoring touchdowns, this high-minded sports drama attempts to merge the bold-faced thematic seriousness of something like Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” with the macho swagger of “Top Gun.” Disney’s marketing muscle placed at the service of the film’s reductive heart-in-the-right-place appeal and Denzel Washington’s charisma should put solid numbers on the board through the fall season.
While looking like a titan indeed in comparison to the producer’s previous releases this year, “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Coyote Ugly,” this one will have pundits pondering the question, Whither Jerry Bruckheimer? Has he gone socially conscious? Having earned untold zillions, does he now crave artistic respectability? Is this his idea of a profound picture, or is it just an appetizer for “Pearl Harbor?” Whatever the case, the impulse to turn onto the high road after many years on the low road has certainly been seen in Hollywood many times before.
To be fair, Bruckheimer, with his late partner Don Simpson, waded into socially turbulent waters once before, in “Dangerous Minds,” but not with the inspirational intent that underlines this new film, which reps the first major studio outing for helmer Boaz Yakin. As simplistic and drained of complexity as the picture is, it may well appeal to mainstream audiences as an “if only it could be like this” fantasy, as well as on the elemental level of a boot camp training film, albeit a PG-rated one with all the cuss words removed.
Framed by the funeral service for one Titan player 10 years later, first-produced feature script by TV scribe Gregory Allen Howard zeroes in on how it went down at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., when blacks were introduced to the previously all-white school. Because training begins in the summer, the football program is integrated well before any black student sets foot in a classroom, and the whole process gets off to a poor start as far as the community is concerned when a black coach from South Carolina, Herman Boone (Washington), is brought in to replace a revered and successful white coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton).
Although Yoast initially refuses to consider working in a subordinate capacity and his players come close to sitting out the season, they shortly show up for practice, with Yoast in charge of the defense. A self-described “race man” who walked with Dr. King, Boone is also a born drill sergeant who makes his attitude perfectly clear at the outset: “This is no democracy. This is a dictatorship. I am the law.”
Faced with aggressive, competitive, muscular young men of both races whose mutual mistrust erupts into sporadic racial brawls, Boone forces them to deal with one another by assigning opposite-race roommates and adopting other measures. He also demands not just excellence but perfection from his players, which adds to the pressure.
Among those brought to the fore among the dozens of hopefuls are hardcase black quarterback Julius “Big Ju” Campbell (Wood Harris), who initially won’t give any white kid the time of day; the hostile white All-American team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst); upbeat, fleet-footed receiver Petey Jones (Donald Faison); the gigantic and gregarious Lewis Lastik (Ethan Suplee), the only player who couldn’t give a damn if someone’s black or white until the arrival from California of Ronnie Bass (Kip Pardue), whose long blond hair earns him the nickname “Sunshine.” With his powerful left arm, Bass poses a threat to Big Ju at QB, and his carefree attitude about racial matters makes him seem like an alien to those raised south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In training at a rural facility at a safe remove from society at large, the guys are put through brutal drills, including forced runs in the middle of the night, one of which ends up at Gettysburg, enabling Boone to make an inspiring speech about history and sacrifice.
By the time they return to Alexandria, the kids are in fighting trim and so purged of their old suspicions and biases that they seem genuinely shocked by the protests and uproar that greet the first day of school; thrown together in the front lines of racial strife, the footballers have survived the first battle and, should they be able to forge a winning season, are in a position to lead the way for the rest of the community.
Yarn’s second half charts the team’s path to the state finals, with the series of briefly re-enacted games embellished by illustrative details of the unsavory racial climate: a brick is thrown through Coach Boone’s living room window, Bertier’s blond girlfriend leaves him since he seems to prefer the company of his black teammates, one white player avoids making blocks so that black players stand a better chance of getting hurt, Boone is led to believe that he’ll be fired if he loses so much as one game, and biased officiating becomes more common the closer the Titans get to the championship.
But no matter how many times a racist foot is stuck out to trip Boone and his right-minded men, virtue triumphs, to the predictable accompaniment of swelling music and recycled pop tunes, plenty of hugging and backslapping and applause all around. We’re all brothers under the skin and all that, especially when there’s music playing and our team is winning.
Aside from its message-waving, pic dedicates itself to entertaining the audience via its military-style whip-’em-into-shape training antics, the sort of thing that always goes down very easily. Although he’s denied the salty dialogue that ordinarily comes with the territory (just as the countless racist characters on view are never allowed to say the n-word in this decidedly family-oriented film), Washington seems to greatly relish playing such a kick-butt authoritarian figure; pic depicts his tough medicine as just what it takes to cleanse these young men of their mutual suspicions and boiling blood. It’s an engaging performance, even if half of his lines are platitudes and the rest orders and instructions.
Patton and Hurst effectively play the two white characters whose gradual coming-around symbolizes the dawning of understanding that, the film posits, everyone will need to experience if society is to improve. Harris and Faison register nicely as the most prominently featured black athletes, Pardue and Suplee stand out as the two wild cards in the bunch, and Hayden Panettiere is almost frighteningly precocious as Yoast’s daughter, a 9-year-old who knows more about football than do most of the guys.
Shot in Georgia rather than Virginia, pic is technically sound except for the coverage of all the nighttime football action; the lighting is garishly unattractive, and excessively tight framing emphasizes the games’ physical impact at the expense of play-making clarity.