Considering the near-universal acclaim Undefeated has received since it debuted at SXSW last year, culminating in an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature) earlier this week, it’s reasonable to expect that it will prove to be a relatively dramatic, powerful, and/or thrilling picture.
Instead, Undefeated is merely a nice-enough portrait of one high school coach and three of his players. In view of its running time, which approaches two hours, it is very slight indeed, imparting little in the way of insight or context, and adds up to barely more than an extended pep talk.
The set-up is good, providing background on successful businessman Bill Courtney and Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee. Having opened a business in the area, as well as having experience as a high school teacher and football coach in the past, Courtney volunteered to serve as head coach of the football team, which was well-known for its losing ways. He also teamed up with a friend to raise money for the underfunded program.
Courtney, with four children of his own, felt a keen desire to help the young men at school, especially those without fathers of their own. The fact that he is Caucasian and the young men are African-American never seems to have entered his mind, and the documentary only touches glancingly on the subject.
Possible racial issues are only raised when one of the young men needs tutoring, and Courtney and another coach volunteer to pay the costs involved and also provide lodging for the young man. Why does he need to be separated from his mother for several months? Well, there’s no way they could get any tutors to go to his part of town and help the kid in his run-down house, so the solution is to put him up in more acceptable surroundings with one of the coaches.
Now, you might think it’s unfair to concentrate on what amounts to only a few minutes of footage, or to harp on what is NOT covered. So let’s take a look at what IS presented, over and over again.
Coach Courtney cares. And he’s hurt, personally, when these darn kids don’t respond, and don’t respect him, and don’t appreciate that he’s giving up his precious time for them, that he’s neglecting his own kids just to help them out.
Watching the documentary, the impression is given that Coach Courtney’s coaching philosophy consists solely of pep talk after pep talk, of the ‘you gotta try harder’ / ‘you gotta give it all your heart’ / ‘you gotta wanna win’ variety. Any real-life strategy that he might have imparted, of the ‘xx’s and oo’s’ variety, has been left on the cutting-room floor. If that were true to life, then why on Earth did Coach Courtney insist that the players watch so much game footage?
It’s safe to assume that Courtney did buttress his uplifting pep talks with good game plans, because the team begins to win and then catches fire. Positive thinking only goes so far in football: you need quality players, good training, and good play-calling, but Undefeated makes it looks at though all you need are pep talks in order to win win win. And the same logic is applied to much more substantial problems.
Undefeated is a dramatic fumble. By cutting the substance and emphasizing the cheerleading, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin make football seem like a child’s game. It’s not without value, but it’s The Artist of documentary films: slight and forgettable.
Undefeated opens today at Angelika Dallas and Cinemark West Plano.