UNDEFEATED: 3 ½ STARS
Not to be confused with “The Undefeated,” last year’s Sarah Palin infomercial, “Undefeated” is a sports documentary that recently won the Best Documentary Oscar. One is a humane and inspirational story about the power of people to make foster change in the lives of others. The other one isn’t. Guess which is which.
The movie’s name is a bit misleading. The Tennessee high school football team the Manassas Tigers aren’t exactly the most triumphant team in the league. Underfunded and underprivileged the squad was on the skids as a team-for-hire before pot-bellied volunteer coach Bill Courtney (Phillip Seymour Hoffman would likely play him in the Hollywood version) stepped in and guided them through the 2009 season. Under his tough love tutelage they are transformed into a solid, successful team, learning how to win, not just in the gridiron but also in life.
The synopsis sounds like something we’ve seen many times before. Perhaps Dennis Hopper played the coach… or was it Denzel Washington? Either way, the spectre of déjà vu hangs heavy over the movie, except that this isn’t a Hollywood film with Mark Wahlberg or James Caan, it’s a portrait of real life on and off the field.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin understand that the human aspect of the story is far more important than whether the team goes undefeated or not. Like the classic sports doc, “Hoop Dreams,” “Undefeated” offers up an intimate portrait of the players. It’s not as deeply felt as “Hoop Dreams” but it avoids the melodrama so frequent in sports docs and will certainly make you cheer for the characters.
Despite a slight familiar feel “Undefeated” trumpets the value of self-respect, team work and discipline and entertains while doing so.