Thursday, October 13, 2016

Spirit of the Game Review

Here's a unique review. Spirit of the Game was released in Utah theaters last weekend, Oct. 7. I got to see it much earlier than that, though, on Tuesday, Sept. 27. I was invited to an early press screening of the film. No, it wasn't because of me becoming super famous as a movie critic with this blog. Although that would be cool, I am currently working as an intern for the Deseret News and as a part of that, I was doing a story on the real-life Mormon Yankees that this movie is based on leading up to its release. So they invited me to the press screening of the film. That was a unique experience for me. Not often do I get the privilege of seeing a movie before most everyone else. Usually I get some indication of how critics or general audiences feel about a movie before I see it. Not here. Granted I always do my best to come up with my own opinions regardless of what the masses say. But here I had zero frame of reference, which was unique. But fun. I still don't really know what people think of the movie. I haven't looked into that. But I had a good time with this. More importantly I was gratefully for the opportunity to learn about a story that I think everyone should know about.

Who are the Mormon Yankees? To get the most accurate, in-depth answer to that, I'd highly recommend you read the book called Mormon Yankees: Giants on and off the Court by Fred Woods, a BYU professor who did extensive research on the Mormon Yankees, interviewing a total of 70 people leading up to writing his book. This included interviewing several Mormon Yankees themselves as well as many people in Australia who knew a lot about the Mormon Yankees for various reasons. It's a fantastic book by a fantastic man. Fred Woods is genuinely a great guy who I had the pleasure of talking to in preparation for my story. I know I'm doing a movie review, but I need to take this time to promote his book because it's so good and inspirational. When you buy the book, it will also come with a companion DVD documentary of the same name that will teach you more about this wonderful story of the Mormon Yankees. The movie Spirit of the Game is based off Fred Woods' book and I do think it gets the spirit of the story right, but it does take a lot of creative liberties to make for a good film, so watching that is not enough. You also need to read the book.

After talking to Woods and a few others about this, here's my personal brief summary about the Mormon Yankees. They originated back in 1937 in Australia. The people in Australia loved sports, but they didn't love Mormons. So the Mormon missionaries down in Australia had a bit of a rough time. In 1937, they started playing basketball with the YMCA in order to build bridges with the people in Australia. Establishing common ground with people makes missionary work much easier. I can personally attest to that. The YMCA referred to this as "muscular Christianity." The LDS Church called it "spiritualized recreation." From 1937 to 1961, LDS missionaries played basketball in various leagues in Australia through the YMCA and elsewhere and found enormous success. In 1954, the Harlem Globe Trotters came to Australia, giving people there a desire to play basketball, because while sports were big there, basketball really wasn't. But the Harlem Globe Trotters got their attention. One mission president in Australia took advantage of this and promised the press that if they would start covering the Mormon Yankees basketball teams, he would organize a team of basketball players that were better than the Harlem Globe Trotters. So they did.

Shortly after this exchange and formation of a team, LDS Church president David O. McKay came to Australia. This mission president initially felt a big sheepish and said these basketball leagues were only temporary as he felt President McKay would disapprove. It was the exact opposite. President McKay loved what was going on and promised to send even more missionaries that knew basketball. In 1956, the Olympic Games were coming to Australia and the Australian national team was in need of a lot of help, so the coaches requested the help of the Mormon Yankees, who obliged. Not only did the Mormon Yankees help the Australian team, but they also ended up played 10 different exhibition games against countries from around the world that also wanted to practice with the Mormon Yankees, winning five of these games. One major highlight was a game against the Russian national team where the Mormon Yankees only lost by nine points. This is impressive because this Russian team went onto win the silver medal in the Olympics, with the USA winning the gold. Following these events, the history of basketball in Australia was forever changed. But not just that, the Church membership in Australia tripled during the late 50's.

Incredible story, right? If you want to learn more about this, do as I said and read Fred Woods' book. You'll be grateful you did. Now onto this movie. In giving you my brief summary of what actually happened, I made sure to mention the mission president as well as LDS Church president David O. McKay. I should also mention that DeLyle Condie was a missionary who was both the coach of the Mormon Yankee team and their star player. And by all accounts, a fantastic man on and off the court who truly loved the people of Australia. These three individuals are all portrayed in the movie. But the movie's story is a bit different. Elder Condie comes to Australia and is approached by the coaches of the Olympic team after tracting into one of them. Elder Condie wants to help, but his mission president forbids it. He's one of those super strict, letter-of-the-law mission presidents. Finally President McKay intervenes and gives them the go ahead, but the mission president is still fairly weary until later and then we jump right into this basketball drama where they face off against the French twice, which was accurate. They played the French twice. But it was the Russians that were super physical and crazy with them, not the French. Yeah, it's all very dramatized to make a good movie.

That said, if you take the movie on it's own, it's a pretty entertaining movie. It reminded me a bit of a cross between Hoosiers and The Other Side of Heaven. An underdog basketball story combined with a mainstream missionary story. They don't really push the faith angle too hard. This is a basketball drama first and a story about missionaries making a difference in a very far second. From an LDS perspective, the actual story of what these missionaries accomplished is so great that you come out wishing they would've pushed that side of things stronger. But you can't blame them too much for not wanting to sound preachy and you do get enough of the faith element to satisfy that need. Meanwhile this is a movie that anyone can enjoy regardless of your faith because its about good people doing good things and standing up for what they feel is right. The overall feel is that they get the spirit of the story right. The family of Elder Condie is spot on to what they were like and how supportive they were. Elder Condie himself is done perfectly. He really was that great of a guy. The level of sportsmanship really was that high with this team. They really were that classy and they really did bond as a team and a group of missionaries like that. Thus I can't be too mad about the dramatizations.

Recently I wrote a review of another local movie called The Last Descent and I went on and on in that review about how poor quality of a film that was on every technical aspect. It felt like it was made by a group of junior high school students. Thus it was a breath of fresh air for me to walk into another local movie and see a professionally made film. The cinematography was beautiful. The script was well-written. The camera work, lighting, and editing were all done very smoothly. You don't need a large budget to make a good film and this movie proves that. And all the acting is fantastic, especially Mr. Aaron Jakubenko as Elder Condie. I had the privilege of speaking with him on the phone and he is the nicest man on earth who treated me, a perfect stranger, as his best friend. So easy to talk to. Such a great person. Thus I may be biased in thinking he did a great job, but that's what I thought before I talked to him, so I think I'm in the clear. Also, he is very Australian in real life with a thick accent. Yet he does a flawless American accent in this movie. I was shocked to learn he wasn't American. That in and of itself was impressive. The rest of the cast did good, too, but Jakubenko was the stand out here as the lead of this movie. Hats off to him.

Overall this is a movie that I would recommend if it's in a theater near you. Purdie is the distributor here and they play this little game with all of their films where they take it a week at a time. So if you follow them on social media you may think that you've missed your opportunity to see the film because they always say "this is only going to be here for one week!" But it's always in theaters for like a month or two like every other film. So you do have time. And if you miss it in theaters, catch it on DVD. It's a nice little film. Yet I do have a soft spot for sports dramas, so there may be a bias there, but so be it. Most importantly I will appreciate this film for teaching me about the Mormon Yankees. Had it not been released, I would've never taken on the project to research the real Mormon Yankees and thus I may have never known. Yes the actual story is much different. Yes they did dramatize this quite a bit to make it a good film. But in an ironic turn of events, the movie is called The Spirit of the Game and they do capture "the spirit of the story" so to speak, so nicely done. And of course I will put one final plug for you to go read Fred Woods' book Mormon Yankees: Giants on and off the Court to learn the in-depth, full story. It's fantastic. As far as my grade for the movie The Spirit of the Game, I'm going to award it a solid 8/10. 

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