Remember the Titans (2000)

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My buddy Jeff and I were waiting for another friend of ours to show up for happy hour, and I was telling Jeff that I needed to watch “Remember the Titans” when I got home, for my Re-Views column. “I gave it an A when it came out,” I said. Jeff made an astonished are-you-crazy? face and said, “Yeah, that seems a little strong.” Then our other friend arrived and we had food and drinks, and afterward I mentioned to this other friend what I was up to later, including the part about giving it an A when it came out. He made the same face as Jeff and said, “Wow, that does seem a little high.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Even before re-watching it I suspected my original assessment would prove to be hyperbolic. I had two distinct tendencies in my early days as a film critic. One was to give out A and A- grades like Halloween candy. The other was to forget all about a movie’s shortcomings if it made me feel warm and/or fuzzy in the end. (In the end of the movie, not in my end.) It seemed like there was a good chance both of these tendencies would apply to my “Remember the Titans” review.

What I said then:

“‘Remember the Titans’ is a cheerfully uplifting triumph, that rare film that conveys emotion without sentimentality, and whose weaknesses are so overpowered by its strengths that you practically forget they exist…. Racism is obviously a central issue here, but screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard does the near-impossible by keeping it from getting preachy…. Director Boaz Yakin has painted the landscape with numerous honest, real characters. They aren’t just white football players and black football players: They’re genuine people whose attitudes and interactions make this more than just another inspiring movie about sports…. The message of it all is obvious, and so the film doesn’t beat us over the head with it. We’re allowed to just enjoy the movie for the fantastic feel-good article that it is, and subtly become better because of it, too…. The film has its minor flaws. But taken as a whole, it’s as close to perfect as you’re going to find — a feel-good movie that’s also smart and deep, that makes you feel good without manipulating you.” Grade: A [The whole fawning review.]

It’s a little strange that I’d never seen it a second time considering it’s one of my mom’s favorite movies. She and my dad apparently watch it all the time. (I don’t live with them, though, which I guess makes it less strange that I haven’t watched it with them.) Back in 2008, in conjunction with Mother’s Day, the dear departed Cinematical had its writers ask their moms about their favorite films. Here’s what my mom told me:

“I love ‘Remember the Titans.’ It’s set in my senior year in high school, so the music reminds me of high school. I’d love to get the soundtrack. [I don’t think she intended that as a hint, but I took it as one anyway.] It’s such a warm story. I have trouble comprehending that in 1971 in some parts of the country there was still that kind of racial junk going on, but I guess it was. It comes on TV a lot, and we have it on DVD — and VHS — so every time it comes on we start watching it, and then we get frustrated with the commercials and put on the DVD. And Denzel Washington! I love Denzel Washington.”

That’s pretty much how I felt when I saw it in 2000. Most reviewers were basically on the same side as me and Mom (73% positive at Rotten Tomatoes), but my review seems to have been particularly effusive. The negative reviews said it was watered-down, melodramatic, oversimplified, and Disney-fied.

Harrumph! Those sad sacks!

The re-viewing:

First of all, you know who’s in this movie? Wood Harris, aka Avon Barksdale, from “The Wire.” I hadn’t realized, when I started watching that show, that I’d seen him before. I thought he sprang fully formed from my nightmares. Also present are are Ryan Gosling, Kate Bosworth, Donald Faison (Turk from “Scrubs”), Ethan Suplee (the fat guy from “My Name Is Earl”), and an 11-year-old Hayden Panettiere.

Now, my mom makes some good points. For example: Denzel Washington! The man oozes old-fashioned charm and decency. When he appears in a bad movie, the stink of it doesn’t stay on him. If you cast Denzel as your lead actor, you’ve already done half the job of getting the audience on your side. A second viewing of “Titans” highlights the character’s speechifying tendencies — no longer will I claim the screenplay is anything approaching subtle or nuanced — but is that not part of the comfortable pattern of an inspiring sports movie? And who better to delivery those stern but affectionate speeches than a respectable authority figure like Denzel Washington?

My mom’s other good point is that it’s such a warm story. It is a warm story. Now it occurs to me that sometimes “warm” means oversimplified. Don’t make us feel too bad before we get to feel good. And I rolled my eyes a little during this second viewing, but I was always smiling when I did it. The movie earnestly strives to tell a complicated, painful race-relations story in a simple, easily digestible way. This is the greeting-card version; though it’s based on a true story, you can tell at a glance that it didn’t happen this easily. The film conveys the darkness of the conflicts just enough so that we’ll be able to feel appropriately happy when those conflicts are overcome.

Does that mean it’s “oversimplified”? Well, yeah. That’s kind of the definition of “oversimplified.” But as fast-food stories of triumph go, “Remember the Titans” is satisfying and relatively nourishing.

The cynical view — and a charge that was often leveled at “The Help” last year — is that a movie like this one makes our ongoing race problems look much easier to solve than they are. But is that always a bad thing? Fables and fairy tales distill thorny issues into simple aphorisms, and that makes those thorny issues seem more manageable. It isn’t being naive; it’s being optimistic. We like to hear “You can do it!” a lot more than we like to hear “You can do it, but it’s going to take years and there will be many setbacks and it’s going to be discouraging.” That more sophisticated approach has its place, of course, and plenty of movies do a fine job of examining society’s struggles in a realistic and truthful fashion. But what’s wrong with the occasional burst of wishful thinking?

Do I still love this movie?

As my friends predicted, “love” is a strong word. The movie isn’t “smart and deep” like I said it was 11 1/2 years ago, nor does it succeed “without manipulating you.” It manipulates the dickens out of you. But it isn’t embarrassingly preachy, and it doesn’t insult our intelligence. I’ll stand by it as a sturdy, sincere, enjoyable drama, made with a lot of passion and a fair amount of skill. Grade: B

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