‘Woodlawn’: Reverent ’70s football story told with strength and skill

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By James Ward | Gannett News Service

Of all his on-field football heroics, running back Tony Nathan’s best moment was arguably standing up to the virulent racist and segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.

It’s one of the most powerful moments in “Woodlawn.” The compelling based-on-true-events filmtells the story of how the Woodlawn High School football team and star running back overcame a racially charged atmosphere in early 1970s Birmingham, Alabama, to triumph both on and off the field. The film argues that the team’s embrace of Christian teachings — mainly the whole love-your-neighbor thing — was the key element of its success.

Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (“Mom’s Night Out”) aren’t subtle about ratcheting up the emotion in “Woodlawn” — the rest of the film wears its heart on its sleeve — but plays the Wallace scene with a restrained power and grace.

Nathan (Caleb Castille, making a memorable big-screen debut) is polite but resolute when he refuses to take a photo with the Alabama governor at a sports banquet.

With his proud father (a strong Lance E. Nichols) looking on, Nathan points out that Wallace doesn’t think he was good enough to go to school at Alabama, so he wasn’t going to take a photo with the politician. Nathan went on to win a national collegiate title with Alabama and a Super Bowl with the Miami Dolphins.

The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the racial violence that plagued Birmingham, including the horrific KKK bombing of a church that killed several African-American children and the racist anti-desegregation rallies.

But most of all “Woodlawn” has a feel of a deeply personal film directed with care and passion. It’s beautifully shot and full of exacting early 1970s detail, right down to its terrific soundtrack, full of Southern rock classics. And the football scenes are shot with a ferocious speed and power, putting audiences on the field as the high school players hurl themselves at each other like teenage missiles.

That the film is made such a loving and reverential way shouldn’t be a surprise, though. For the Erwins, the story is part of their family’s history: Their father, Hank (played here by Sean Astin), was the Woodlawn team chaplin and witnessed the events firsthand. In the press notes, the Erwins say they grew up hearing the story of Nathan and the Woodlawn team and always wanted to tell the story on the big screen.

Like most sports movies, “Woodlawn” builds the story around a confrontation with the school’s cross-town rival, led by a trash-talking coach (C. Thomas Howell). The inevitable grudge match between the two schools draws 42,000 fans (with 20,000 people turned away at the stadium) and is still considered one of the best high school games ever played, with several players on both teams later playing in the NFL.

But the Erwins and screenwriter Quinton Peeples do something surprising with the “big game” climax that turns the usual sports movie cliche on its head. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil how the filmmakers handle the events, but it’s unique and powerful.

Powerful, too, is Nicholas Bishop as Nathan’s high school football coach. At first, Coach Tandy Gerelds is unsure of Hank’s motives, questioning whether religion and football should mix.

And he’s also nervous about the mix of religion and public schools. But he can’t argue with the positive effects on his team and the rest of the school. Bishop plays Gerelds as a thoroughly decent and caring man — someone who is passionate about winning but cares even more about his young players.

Memorable, too, in a smaller role is Oscar winner Jon Voight, who plays legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. He comes across as an almost mythic character, coming down to visit mortals like Zeus from Mt. Olympus.

So, yes, “Woodlawn” tells a deeply personal tale of race and the power of faith. It may trouble peoplewho think (rightfully) the separation of church and state is a bedrock American principle, especially when it comes to public schools. But it’s impossible to argue over the message of love and tolerance in “Woodlawn.”

And it’s impossible not to recognize the skill and power of the way the filmmakers tell their story.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Pure Flixpresents a film directed by the Erwin Brothers and written by Jon Erwin and Quinton Peeples. Running time: 123minutes. Rated PG(for thematic elements including some racial tension/violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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