Most of us like an underdog story, and this 2012 Academy Awards Best Documentary feature has all the standard elements that make up an award winning one. Directed and photographed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Undefeated follows a season of high school football team in their quest to secure a berth in the playoffs, being led by volunteer coach Bill Courtney, who has given up tremendous time over the last six seasons to follow his passion, and becoming a much lauded figure in the school for his tough love ways to turn around wayward boys, and boys with potential, into team players.
"Football doesn't build character. Football reveals character" is Courtney's philosophical take-away, and much of this documentary is a testament to that. In following this particular season as produced for the film, the filmmakers probably didn't know how it would have turned out, and it's very much contrary to the title of the movie. Then again, we may not be referring to the scoreline and results of the season, but to the spirit of the team that Courtney had developed this particular system that's under the filmmaker's lens and scrutiny, and the drilling down to the more micro, and personal level, amongst a select group of players that were paid a special focus.
One of the arcs may seem a little bit like The Blind Side, where a giant of a player got to stay with one of the coaches for a little while, in order to get his academic grades back on track in order to qualify for college. A college sports career is almost a given for O.C. Brown, but to get there meant a decent academic score. With players who come from troubled backgrounds, there are no lack of contenders making up the subjects for the documentary, especially amongst a large football team, and it goes to show how challenging a coach's job is in order to keep track of the team's progress in the game, the training, and the managing of plenty of egos, especially that of a hot head who just got released from junior penitentiary, and looks set to disrupt team dynamics.
And precisely why this documentary turned out a winner, is the very presence of Bill Courtney, and his story. Owner of a lumber business, he had sacrificed family time for game time to pursue his passion for coaching in a school that doesn't have a remarkable history in the game, and it is his unrelenting belief, and methods, that really made Undefeated engaging, rich, and moving, especially when doing so without much concrete rewards for six years. It is the crossroads he is in now, having to measure time spent with the school players, and that of his own children, that is niggling at the back of his mind, especially so when the team he has at his disposal this year has shown some remarkable progress. It's real family versus adopted family, and it's indeed cruel, yet inevitable in having presented no real choice where one's priorities should reside in.
Told in chronological order with plenty of games highlighted, each that will make you continuously root for the players and coaches we've grown accustomed to, this sports documentary covers a broad spectrum of the game, and the people behind the game. Yet it has plenty of soul in tackling the different story arcs amongst the people, that makes it a lot more powerful, rather than being just another sports movie that countless of Hollywood products have been produced, that tells of similarly inspiring, or heartwarming stories about superb coaches, and underdog teams making it good.
At the end of the day, what matters are the relationships that we forge, and probably the value and legacy we leave behind, that matters more than fleeting results. As Bill Courtney puts it, the measure of a man is not when he wins, but when he is defeated, and his reaction to that defeat, that matters the most. Recommended!