Having spent most of my life in New England, where sports are the way of life and the Patriots hoard more cultural cachet than the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and maybe even the mayor combined, I have never understood football’s appeal as entertainment or as a pastime. Against these odds, Ty Roberts’ new movie, “12 Mighty Orphans,” has opened my eyes by couching Americans’ passion for the game in a time of national duress: The Dust Bowl, smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression, when football became a symbol on which deprived and destitute Americans could imprint their hopes and dreams. The football wasn’t a ball to them. The promise of achievement won through the efforts of folks who, like them, came from and have nothing.
None of this applies to football today, of course, but those central aspirations remain moving anyway; and none of this is to say that “12 Mighty Orphans” is a great, or even good, movie. Instead, it’s frustratingly haphazard in its structure, the source of both its successes as a crowd-pleaser and its failures as a biodrama about the Masonic Home Mighty Mites, the orphan football team from Fort Worth, Texas, who in 1938 achieved unexpected glory under the guidance of their father figure-cum-savior Rusty Russell. Arriving at the Masonic Home and School as its new football coach, Russell taught these boys the value of discipline, self-respect, and fellowship through the athletic rigor of football; he taught them love, too, and gave them each a shoulder to grieve on.
Russell, here played by Luke Wilson with quiet, jawsome dignity, was himself an orphan, as Roberts’ screenplay (co-written with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer, and based on author Jim Dent’s nonfiction book “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football”) never fails to mention when given a chance. He was also a veteran of World War I, which left him near-blind thanks to an ugly encounter with mustard gas. Coaching the Mighty Mites was his way of paying forward his luck at getting his eyesight back and at exorcising his own demons as a boy abandoned by his family, too. “12 Mighty Orphans” cuts from the film’s present to Russell’s past: First-person POV shots in black and white, capturing his time on the battlefield in France, and soft-lit flashbacks to the day his mom left him in another’s care with the false promise of her eventual return on her lips.
It’s hard to watch. The continued brutalization of Russell’s spirit reflects in the effect the same neglect has on the boys he coaches in the 1920s. Particularly when one of them, C.D. “Wheatie” Sealey (Slade Monroe), is accosted by his mom in the orphanage and refuses to go back home with her; the pain of her return is validated by the abuse she heaps on him at his decision to stay at Masonic Home. But moments like these are few and mostly involve either Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), the Mighty Mites’ star player, or Russell, the film’s protagonist and main object of study.
Roberts’ insistence on Russell as his lead undermines the story he’s trying to tell, which, yes, is at least in part is Russell’s; he is, after all, the inciting element to the narrative we watch unfold before us on the screen. But “12 Mighty Orphans” should also be about the orphans more so, because ultimately the renown and deep cultural meaning they won, they won through their own actions. Russell guided them. The team did the rest. Roberts makes characters out of a few key players and mostly relegates the rest to snappy, era-appropriate one-liners, but this does little service to their humanity or to their struggle to prove to their fellow Americans that they are each of them someone and that they’re worthy of compassion. Life kicked some of them to the curb. Others it splashed with the blood of their parents. Hardy suffers major PTSD, a detail explored with care, but the disorders and neuroses and anxieties weighing down the others go unspecified. So we have to fill in those blanks ourselves.
Grant that Russell is a compelling figure, but grant also that “12 Mighty Orphans” winds up caught between “plucky sports underdog film” and “sentimental biopic.” The story becomes bifurcated. When it works, which is mostly on the field as Russell and his right-hand man, hard-drinking and avuncular Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), train the boys and direct them through scheduled games against Texas high school teams. The young men the Mighty Mites play against weigh about 30 to 50 pounds more and have proper equipment. The Mites play with homemade balls stuffed with flour. It’s a lopsided contest on paper. However, Russell pioneered football plays that let the Mites play to their strengths and exploit holes in their opponents.
There’s drama in how these games play, and not a small amount of fun: Here, Roberts appears most at home and demonstrates the most facility with his filmmaking. But the games themselves comprise a small percentage of “12 Mighty Orphans” run time. Mostly the film fixates on Russell and the many obstacles he and Doc overcome to get their team into the local league. Wayne Knight, oily and cruel, functionally reprises his role from “Billy Madison” with cartoonish villainy out of place in the movie’s realist subject matter; league bigwigs with conflicts of interest, like in-law relationships with rival coaches, labor to defy principles laid out in their rulebooks as well as the will of Texans cheering the Mites on from the sidelines. Ultimately it’s very little about football. It’s about class. This is a theme worthy of a spotlight, too — but “12 Mighty Orphans” isn’t the place for it, or it shouldn’t be. [C]