The high point of the movie adaptation of The Greatest Game Ever Played comes early--before the opening credits. The screen is black and, in a white that shimmers with promise, the words this is a true story ... cast a hopeful spell. Given the drama of Francis Ouimet's improbable victory in the 1913 U.S. Open, and how well Mark Frost told the story in his splendid 2002 book of the same name, and that Frost wrote the screenplay, the rest should've been a gimme. But what follows is another self-absorbed, self-congratulatory golf movie so earnest that it gasps under the weight of its gravitas.
The actors, led by Shia LeBeouf as Ouimet and Stephen Dillane as Harry Vardon, swing their hickories with intent and look like golfers. And the compelling yarn about the blue-collar kid from Brookline who finds himself in a historic shootout with Vardon and another Brit, Ted Ray, remains intact. But so is a stifling overlay of--bass chord, please--social significance, and, like varnish, it emits a solemn smell.
The odor is particularly redolent around the love interest (Peyton List) the filmmakers invent for Ouimet. This Brahmin Babe subplot telegraphs the picture's message, making sure its point about the inflexibility of turn-of-the-century castes can't be missed. So many characters are so insistent that Ouimet neither belongs nor fits in among the Country Club swells that his triumph feels less like a wonderful upset than one preordained by the demands of a formulaic story.
As for that promise of truth, aficionados will wonder where Vardon misplaced his mustache, what happened to Walter Hagen (who was a major character in the book) and how Ouimet procured what looks like a contemporary Tour yardage book. (These books were first used in the mid-1970s.) More significant is the dramatic license that has Ouimet first quitting the game, then coming into the Open cold. In fact Ouimet was in top form that September--he had won the Massachusetts State Amateur the previous June and was fresh off a near upset of defending champion Jerry Travers in the U.S. Amateur.
If the movie couldn't fully uphold its oath, it should have at least improved its lies. --Jeff Silverman