Titans tackles Southern bigotry with predictable plays
Jerry Bruckheimer built his fortune producing movies that are nearly indistinguishable from commercials. Beginning with Flashdance, his signature has been glossy photography, hyperactive editing and thematic shallowness worthy of the TV ads that air during the Super Bowl. He's perpetually pitching an activity or lifestyle, whether it's car stealing (Gone in 60 Seconds), naval aviation (Top Gun) or bartending (Coyote Ugly).
If Bruckheimer must make films — if he won't just hop into a red Ferrari and roar off into the sunset — it's preferable that he produce ones like Remember the Titans, which can be likened to a public service announcement on steroids. The challenges facing a newly integrated Virginia high school football team make for simplistic and unabashedly manipulative entertainment that nevertheless has an inarguable message and proves involving in spite of itself.
The 1971 integration of T.C. Williams High School's football team and coaching staff offers a vivid means of dramatizing the period tensions over busing. Community pressures cause African-American Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) to be appointed coach over the head of the Virginia school's beloved Bill Yoast (Will Patton), who accepts a lesser position of coaching defense while Boone handles the offense. Their respective positions mirror the racial dynamic, with blacks trying to make new social inroads while embattled-feeling whites see their resistance worn down.
Boone immediately integrates the team and up-ends the white players' feelings of entitlement to their positions. Through an extended sequence at a training camp, Boone proves a harsh taskmaster, but his methods of forced bonding — including room and bus assignments and even a pep talk on the field of Gettysburg — eventually lead the players to embrace color-blindness. The unifying power of locker room "Momma" jokes doesn't hurt either.
Upon their return however, the racial pressures start up again, as the team is unified but the community is not. Remember the Titans unfolds by rigidly adhering to a cycle of demonstrated bigotry, moving speech, tentative reconciliation and repeat. Ryan Hurst's quarterback, for instance, ends his friendship with an intolerant buddy and takes up with an African-American pal (Wood Harris), who his mother initially rejects, then comes to accept, and so on.
Among the other teammates include a long-haired Californian (Kip Pardue) branded a gay hippie, a cocky defensive lineman (Donald Adeosun Faison) and a hefty underachiever (Ethan Suplee) who offers a means for both comic relief and motivational material about getting his grades up. We also see a lot of Yoast's tomboy daughter Cheryl (Hayden Panettiere), who offers anguished, incongruous play-by-play from bleachers in a joke that gets old fast. Oddly enough, Titans is narrated by the older Cheryl, fitting the tradition of films like The Long Walk Home and A World Apart, which dramatize black struggles through the eyes of white girls.
When the season starts, Boone must do more than simply prove himself, learning that if he loses a single game, he'll be fired. Fortunately Boone leads Titans to a winning season, and Gregory Allen Howard's screenplay knows at least one truism about the South: feelings about sports trump feelings about race. Inspiring the team to victories, he finds himself the unexpected hero among the white neighbors who shunned him.
Titans does a decent job of building suspense for individual football games, which fortunately aren't edited to death like the action scenes in many recent Bruckheimer films. As the team enters the championship playoffs, the film increasingly piles up the cliches, even by the standards of sports movies: it makes Hoosiers look like Hoop Dreams. There's even a badly injured player who cheers the team on from his hospital bed. One of the film's most creative moments, a split-screen, home-movie style montage of the town's embrace of the team, isn't exactly innovative, but it's nicely executed.
The musical choices are just as predictable, drawing on an astonishing volume of the most familiar period pop songs, from "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" to "Peace Train" and, of course, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the use of which is required by U.S. law. The standards are far preferable to the score, which rivals The Patriot in providing Vaguely Important-Sounding White Noise.
A consummate professional, Denzel Washington commits to thin material and elevates it, here revealing a coach whose drill sergeant tactics echo the extent to which he drives himself. Leading an agreeable cast of young actors, Washington goes the extra yard to make Remember the Titans as surprisingly diverting as it is. Just don't expect nuance or subtlety to be a part of Bruckheimer's starting lineup. u