Starring: Christopher Severio, Neal McDonough, Leslie Easterbrook
Directed by: David Hunt (“Living Dark”)
Written by: David Hunt (“Living Dark”) and Brian Reindl (debut)
On January 4, 1999, a month after Texas’s Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy, I was planted in front of a television screen, pulling for Chris Weinke and Sebastian Janikowski’s third-ranked Florida State Seminoles to take down Tee Martin and Peerless Price’s undefeated, top-seeded Tennessee Volunteers. They didn’t, and the Vols rolled to a 23-16 victory in the first-ever BCS Championship Game, posting a 13-0 record and becoming the first of nine BCS champions to complete a perfect season.
Arguably, though, Tennessee’s most memorable test of the season (and one of the most heartbreaking near-upset college football games of all time) had come roughly seven weeks earlier, when the eventual champs ran face-first into the surging, 10th-ranked, likewise-unbeaten Arkansas Razorbacks — who might have snapped their title hopes right then and there if not for a late-game, instantly legendary “sports miracle” — or, depending on your allegiances, “harrowing disaster.”
Sports are like that. Events transpire (balls bounce in or rattle out, are caught or dropped, drift foul or fair) seemingly objectively, even arbitrarily, and we assign meaning to them, use them to fuel our hope or despair. Life, too: “Good” things happen, we believe the world to be a wonderful place; “bad” ones, some of us tend to struggle for meaning. Those of us who are religious may take the dichotomy as a test of faith.
At this intersection — sports, life, crisis of belief — sits David Hunt’s “Greater,” a Christian-faith-based film that aims to meditate on these themes, provide encouragement to those in the grip of such a spiritual conundrum, and tell the remarkable (and remarkably “Rudy”-like) true story of the heart and soul of that Arkansas team: a winsome, bespectacled o-lineman named Brandon Burlsworth, considered to be perhaps the greatest walk-on in college football history, whose life was cut tragically short.
The film opens with the final, day-of preparations for Burlsworth’s funeral in hometown Harrison, Arkansas, in the midst of wrestling with his death. “Of all people,” clicks a local, early on, “How’s that make any sense?” The funeral director sloughs past a sign reading “Lord help us understand.” In short order, we’re following his older brother, Marty (Neal McDonough), who shrugs off condolences and walks about vacantly, stricken by anger and confusion. Marty’s flashback remembrances serve as our entry into Brandon’s ultimately irresistible underdog story: fat-shamed, socially awkward kid declares while watching a game that he wants to play for the University of Arkansas, puts his head down and doesn’t stop fighting the (considerable) odds until he realizes that dream, and more. Intermittently, we pop back out to present-day Marty, whose will-he-or-won’t-he reluctance to attend the funeral he’s dressed for as a protest against a God who would unjustly allow such a calamity — or was unable to prevent it — both furnish the film’s frame story and carry its underlying message.
“Greater,” as is notable in spots, is not a film with an extravagant (reported/estimated) budget, by Hollywood standards. Imdb.com lists it at $9 million; by comparison, “Rudy” spent $12M — 23 years ago. 2006’s “Glory Road” spent $30 million, and the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic “42” (which nabbed Harrison Ford and a then-unknown Chadwick Boseman) spent $40M. In truth, the movie works best (and feels like big-time cinema — no small feat) when it’s following Brandon, Marty, and family on the path to Razorback glory (Hogs heaven?) and beyond. The football sequences are thrilling and well-wrought, and the performances are solid and charming across the board. Severio channels guilelessness and palpable determination, McDonough handles frustration, comic relief, and emotional weight well. A pair of coaches — Fredric Lehne as Arkansas OT coach Mike Bender, and Peter Lewis as Bulsworth’s high school coach Tommy Tice — are particular standouts, effectively drawing both smiles and tears as focused but large-hearted motivators. Michael Parks gives another raspy, quietly searing turn in a smallish role as the Burlsworths’ troubled father.
I liked “Greater.” In parts, I loved it. I connected with it, laughed with it, cried with it. There are great moments, moments I want to relive via repeat viewings. It succeeds in capturing a purity of spirit that exists in “Rudy,” in “Rocky,” in many of the great sports films. It lost me, though, in moments in which it seemed to fight itself to be two stories: Brandon’s and Marty’s. Its message, that tragedy tests faith, is not one I disagree with or feel isn’t a worthy statement, but the way in which it was handled seemed to press the point too much. A device that embroiled McDonough’s Marty in existential conversations with an enigmatic character named in credits as The Farmer (is he real? is he an embodiment of Marty’s doubt or darkness?) featured good performances, but was befuddling, and seemed tonally at odds with the light, “Hoosiers”-y ethos of the film I felt I was, at times, watching. There are issues with overscoring, and pacing. It’s worth mentioning here that my viewing partner was not as bothered as I was by these issues, so maybe these sentiments aren’t universal.
Finally, though, “Greater” is worth watching — particularly for fans of the sort of fighting-giants, feel-good athletics films to which we’ve already referred. The Brandon Burlsworth story is a very, very good one, and “Greater” tells it well; the movie is at its best, for me, when channeling the enormous heart that pervades his remarkable journey, and must have existed palpably within the young man himself.
Note: Actor Christopher Severio (who plays Brandon Bulsworth in “Greater”) and his family lost everything in the recent Louisiana flooding. The production has established a Gofundme at the following link for those who wish to donate click HERE.