The Greatest Game Ever Played is the story of Francis Ouimet, a young amateur golfer who challenged-and beat-legendary British champion Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open. Ouimet's tale, little known today, is given the Disney treatment here. But, for the film's intended audience, that's not a bad thing.
Bill Paxton (best known as an actor) directs a script by Mark Frost, who also wrote the well-received book of the same name. There isn't much subtlety in The Greatest Game (rated PG for some brief mild language), but there is a lot going on both visually and narratively for a family film.
Disney Channel regular Shia LaBeouf (Holes) stars as Ouimet, who grows up in a working-class, immigrant family across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Certainly never allowed on the course as a player, Ouimet lives out his dreams of sports glory vicariously as a caddie. Despite the discouragement of his hard-working father, Ouimet practices on his own and his skill generates the notice of some club regulars.
In 1913, golf was still very much a game of class-open to gentleman, closed to all others. Vardon, it would seem, is the polar opposite of Ouimet, an elegant six-time British Open champion and golf pioneer. Yet he too rose from a working-class background and feels excluded from the full privileges of his status at the top of the game. Mr. Frost and Mr. Paxton underline the class conflicts in a manner that is heavy-handed at times but probably effective for younger audiences.
This is a golf movie of more than two hours, and Mr. Paxton works hard to keep things interesting, employing visual tricks of all sorts. Some of them distract, like the close-up shot of a ladybug on a golf ball just prior to contact (prominently featured in the film's trailer), but often Mr. Paxton and his cinematographer lend the film a compelling visual flair. Another surprise: Eddie (Josh Flitter), Ouimet's 10-year-old caddie, is a delight; his entrance into the story breathes new life into the film.
When done well, sports movies possess a magic and visceral appeal all their own. Ouimet's is a great story, and Mr. Paxton does a nice job tapping into that magic for an all-ages family audience.