Judge David Johnson says this movie is to Varsity Blues what Star Wars was to Galaxy Hunter.
Father vs. son.
In early 2000, documentary filmmakers T. Patrick Murray and Alex Weinruss were granted full access to the top high school football team in Pennsylvania: the Central Bucks West. This film follows the team from training camp to the playoffs, intimately detailing what goes into crafting a successful, dominant football team, while also exploring the personal sacrifices such a commitment demands. The result: a movie that is real, and could not have even been scripted better.
Facts of the Case
The Central Bucks West team is the dominant force in Pennsylvania high school football. At the start of this documentary, they have already won two consecutive national championships and thirty games in a row (without losing a single one). The team is coached by Mike Pettine, a fire-breathing, highly demanding man whose strategic prowess and game-planning ability are matched by his short temper and razor-sharp shouting voice.
The CBW team is listed as the number five football team in the country, and as their season unfolds, and they start demolishing opponents by fifty points, it's easy to see why. The documentary takes us through each game, pausing to dwell on the peripheral aspect of life as a football player or as a student in such a high-profile football school. Students gladly open up about their feelings about the team's influence, and the reactions are mixed (as most teens' reactions would be).
As Pettine works to bring his team to glory once again, his coaching rival on the other side, North Penn, is his son, Mike Pettine, Jr. Junior has never been able to best his father, and with retirement looming for Senior, this year marks the last chance he'll get. This dynamic, as well as the ongoing drama that accompanies a high school football team seeking a championship, will collide in the playoffs during a winner-take-all match-up.
The Last Game is a wonderful documentary, rich and complex, emotionally satisfying, revealing, and exciting. It's obvious from the low-grade film quality that the filmmakers were working with a very tiny budget, but the effectiveness of the film overall is further evidence that it's not the cost of the gear or the bulk of the budget that makes a film great.
Weinress and Murray—these guys hit the jackpot when they committed to following this team through their extraordinary seasons and playoff run. I'm serious when I say you couldn't write something like this. In fact, it plays out so perfectly it's hard to believe the film isn't a fictional account. I don't want to spoil a thing, because the twists are so satisfying you need to see the thing fresh, but know this: As a sports film, the action is mesmerizing, and the games and their outcomes are as tense and riveting as anything Hollywood has dreamt up. Much more so, considering it's all real.
But, in my opinion, that's all gravy. The Last Game rocks because of the unparalleled insight it gives into the world of competitive high school football. Coach Pettine is not necessarily a sympathetic guy. He tears into his players, pitches fits, belittles them, and frames it by saying it builds character in the boys and sends them out as team-oriented, disciplined men. We also hear the other side, from the players and students. One player grudgingly accepts the fact he "respects" his coach but doesn't like him. Superstar fullback Dustin Picciotti openly gripes about the management. Mixed feelings abound from regular, non-football students: It's good for the school, but the players think they're so awesome, and they get free passes from the teachers.
The Last Game is honest documentary filmmaking at its finest. The directors' thoughts and ideas are invisible: What you see on screen, the words from the people at the center of the season, is transparent and straight. You make your own decision. Is Coach a solid guy churning out solid men, or is he a self-consumed jackass? What's more important to him, family or football? (The wonderful ending answers this question, at least.)
On the technical end, both the sound (Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo) and picture (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) are adequate, but well short of impressive. The relatively low-grade look of the film quality can be excused because of the miniscule budget, but some of the footage used is wildly distorted and out of proportion. The sound is tinny and sometimes hard to hear, but that has more to do with the apparatus than the mix. The soundtrack, a forgettable and generic mix of rock used during games, is very subdued.
Unfortunately, not a single extra feature accompanies; crazy, considering how much footage there must have been left out. Oddly, the disc I received to review has nothing in terms of special features, but the disc available at Amazon lists several extras and appears to be different altogether.
The Last Game isn't just a terrific sports documentary; it's a great overall film experience. It does what it claims to: it documents. And the filmmakers could not have picked a better season to focus on. You will be surprised at the end of this film, and perhaps a little bit moved. Football fans, this is a must-see.
Not guilty. It's good!
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