The genius of 'The Greatest Game Ever Played' is that it's not really a sports movie. While it has those elements, and they're used to their fullest advantage, 'The Greatest Game Ever Played' is a drama about human struggle in the rigid class systems of the early 1900s.
Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) is the winner of numerous British Opens, has been nicknamed "The Stylist," has a line of golf balls named after him, is the best player in Britain (maybe the world), but is still considered part of the lower-class because of his heritage. When Harry was young, his home was torn down to make room for a new golf course. Why Harry then takes up golf is anyone's guess, but that event is burned into his memory, and it's something he has to deal with throughout his life.
Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) is a young American peasant. Growing up next to a golf course, Francis becomes enamored with the game. He idolizes Harry Vardon and even meets him one day as a young boy, while Harry is performing a golfing demonstration in the city. He stays up late at night practicing his putting on the wooden floor in his bedroom, but because golf is considered a game only for the upper class, Francis is relegated to being a caddie for society's elite. When a local high-class gentleman and the wise old man who keeps up the neighborhood course take an interest in Francis, they find he really does have what it takes to play with the big guys. After Francis wins a regional amateur championship, he's invited to play in the US Open.
The villain of the film, Lord Northcliffe, is a pompous English aristocrat who wants nothing else than to win the US Open and bring the championship back to Britain. Not because he loves the game of golf, but because it will bolster his pride and his standing with the king. He recruits Harry Vardon to go over to America and win the Open, and dangles membership in a prestigious high society gentleman's club as bait. Being a poor outsider all his life, Vardon desperately wants to belong, so he takes Northcliffe up on the offer.
What separates this film from other sports films is that both competitors are treated with equal respect and admiration. Francis is the main focus of the film, and he's of course the person we're supposed to root for. But when Francis and Harry go head-to-head, it's a battle between two fierce, dignified competitors who respect and admire each other. There isn't a clear cut good guy, bad guy scenario, and considering the tried-and-true nature of the sports film genre, that's a refreshing take.
Bill Paxton (yes, that Bill Paxton) directs the movie with a keen eye to detail, and an unwavering courage to use slightly corny, but extremely effective visual effects. We get to travel along with the ball as it soars through the air, and when Harry is up at the tee, he imagines the crowds of people, the trees, and all the distractions disappearing until all that's left is a bright green fairway straight in front of him. Francis uses another tactic where he envisions the hole is only a few feet away, and the camera zooms in on the green like it's pulling it closer and closer to the screen.
'The Greatest Game Ever Played' can be enjoyed on the sports film, rooting-for-the-underdog level, or viewed as a stark portrait of how difficult it was for ordinary people when class systems were so accepted and prevalent. However you view the film, you're sure to have a good time. It's an uplifting movie that steers very close to tired clichés, but somehow stays out of that territory most of the time.
I couldn't find one fault with the 1080p, AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer for this film. It's a gorgeous, rich depiction of the early 1900s. Seeing that most of the movie takes place on a golf course, the greens are of special importance, and here they are beautiful and vibrant. The fairways are lush, and the trees surrounding them stand out with astounding clarity.
Black levels are consistent and nice throughout; shadow delineation is marvelous, making even the faces during night scenes clear and recognizable; and intricate patterns on tablecloths, wallpaper, and clothing are stunning. The texture on Francis' hat really stands out, and even the dimples on the golf balls are all clearly visible. The transfer also benefits from a Kodachrome-like look to give it that "old-time" effect.
At one point in the movie a character puffs a small smoke ring out of his mouth. It hangs in the air a moment, then drifts downward toward a pool table, and before it dissipates, it briefly encircles a ball on the table. I sat stunned. First off, the smoke ring is so vivid it must be real. I have no idea how they did that, or even why. But, that scene is stunning. It's only a few seconds, and it's off to the side of the screen, but I was blown away. Really cool stuff.
I did spot just a miniscule bit of aliasing as the camera pans over a thatched roof cottage, but it didn't distract from the film. Overall, there's nothing that keeps the video quality on this disc from reaching the highest rating.
The audio is equally spectacular. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio makes good use of every channel with great effect. I always felt like I was right in the middle of the action. There are a lot of crowd scenes in this film - a ballroom, a bar, and of course a packed golf course - and the surround channels handle it perfectly. As the crowds roar to life after each amazing putt or drive, so will your TV room. There's also some good use of deep bass during the most intense parts of the film.
The dialogue is presented with great directionality. Voices are never muted or hard to hear. In short, this track has everything a period piece needs.
I like to call it "Disney's attention to detail." It shines through in almost everything the studio does, and here it's no exception. They took their time with this transfer and provided us with a crystal clear picture and perfect sound. You can't ask for anything more from a Blu-ray. Maybe you can gripe about the sparse special features, but when the audio and video quality are this good, there's nothing else to worry about. 'The Greatest Game Ever Played' is a winner, and comes highly recommended.
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