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Can’t Forget

We’ve seen it all before, but Remember the Titans tells us one more time.

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It’s just plain hard to get angry at Remember the Titans, an unabashedly prepackaged and sanitized story of racial bonding among high-school kids at play in the football fields of producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Homogeny has worn us down by this point in the evolution of big-budget film. If it were possible, every studio executive would make 12 pictures exactly like Remember the Titans every year, then go home to fill their pools with $50 bills.

With its blindingly obvious demarcations of good and evil, an aggressive soundtrack blatantly designed to cue emotions hard-wired into our collective subconscious by other movie soundtracks, a sheeny brand of cinematography and a script fanatically dedicated to avoiding surprises, this picture has no intention to anger, challenge or intrigue anybody. Bruckheimer would be absolutely aghast if anybody went down to a coffee shop afterward to discuss this film.

Bruckheimer knows all this, of course—but damned if he’ll admit it. That would ruin the fun. In the press notes, Bruckheimer declares that after generating $11 billion in box-office receipts over his career, he wants nothing more than to concentrate on making “smaller films, cutting-edge stories that explore issues not generally seen in mainstream filmmaking.”

Oh dear lord. As cutting-edge stories go, “Racism Is Bad” couldn’t slice a stick of butter in two. In most every medium, it’s one of the safest conceits in our culture, with handy built-in villains and more third-act reconciliation compulsories than an episode of ER.

Bruckheimer’s picture is all of that; it’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with tackling. But like a big dumb puppy that won’t stay off the couch but loves to lick your hand, it’s difficult to punish this film. We’re so conditioned to forgive these insults to our intelligence, so used to the mental grooves in which it resides, that sometimes it’s just comfortable to be carried along. But does that make it right?

It’s 1971, and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., is gettin’ itself some African-Americans (oh, they’re colored or Negro, mind you—the N word can’t be used in a Disney picture, never mind the historical near-imperative in this situation). The school’s elders have decided their football team might be much better if it had some black players, so desegregation of the entire system is ordered by the school board (any of this sound familiar, BYU football fans?).

What’s more, the board appoints a black coach named Herman Boone (typical Denzel Washington, managing to play both a reluctant-but-steely field general and a reluctant-but-steely civil activist) to take over for Bill Yoast (Will Patton, a talented character actor less pinioned than usual), who’s one victory shy of making the sport’s Hall of Fame. The team’s white players threaten to leave if Yoast does, so he reluctantly accepts Boone’s invitation to be an assistant.

Boone then subjects his growling players to one of the more sadistic training camps on record, waking them up at 3 a.m. to run and putting them through three-a-day practices that would have any right-minded high school kid losing the shoulder pads and heading off to the nearest dope dealer and comic book shop. Of course, these trials do nothing but help the boys overcome their prejudices—although an interracial locker-room sing-along to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” also does the trick.

You know exactly what happens from here on. The filmmakers are counting on it. With so many movies so determined to beat us down, we start looking for refuge in anything that distinguishes one pile from another. Here, those factors are Washington, who stays cool in bad movies better than any actor since Steve McQueen; one or two nice lines from a massive New Jersey transplant lineman played by Ethan Suplee (Willem from Kevin Smith’s Mallrats); and loudmouthed 9-year-old Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere), who’s unexpectedly entertaining as Yoast’s know-it-all daughter. Imagine that: being grateful for a sassy little girl and a funny fat guy.

But are we missing the entire point here? After all, the movie definitely succeeds in making the audience Feel Good, so should it be held to any higher standard? There’s no denying that familiar swell of emotion, despite Yakin’s inexpert direction of the football sequences (too many jump cuts, not enough master shots; don’t waste those lights you spent all that time setting up).

And after all, aren’t sports somewhat dependent on corny sentiment? Winning and losing are never as clear in life as they are on a playing field. There’s no cynicism posing as sophistication here, no attempt to make a simple story (or a simple game) complex.

There’s just football, male bonding and racism (which is bad, remember), all leading to a giant hairy cheeseball finish. In late 2000, do we have the right to ask for any more than this from mainstream Hollywood?

No, we probably don’t. Go Titans.

Remember the Titans HH Directed by Boaz Yakin. Starring Denzel Washington, Will Patton and Ethan Suplee.

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