Sibling co-directors Jon and Andrew Erwin, known as “The Erwin Brothers” are Christian filmmakers who realize that just because they’re making a message movie, doesn’t mean they have to make a sermon out of it. Unlike the other directing duo, The Kendrick Brothers, who are responsible for “Fireproof” and “Courageous”. The Erwin Brothers don’t lay on the Christianity as thick or heavy handed as The Kendricks.
That’s why I enjoy the Erwin Brothers films as their spiritual message is subtle. They know that not all of their audiences can handle the preachings, while they also know the audience shouldn’t be any less entitled to some production value as all of their films are impressively shot. While I’m five years too late (“Woodlawn” was released in 2015), the Erwins have released their latest film at the beginning 2020. “I Still Believe”, the biopic of Christian singer Jeremy Camp and his wife. “I Still Believe” is one of this years best films and one of my favorites, as the Erwins have made their quintessential Nicolas Sparks film.
The Erwins “Woodlawn” is set in the perfect arena to bring together, sports and religion, in a potent combination that have gone hand in hand together for decades. “Woodlawn” is based on the real-life Woodlawn High School football team that played in a history-making 1973 game that attracted 42,000 spectators, while another 20,000 were turned away.
Set in racially torn Birmingham, Alabama, “Woodlawn” is equal parts “Remember the Titans” and revivalist tent meeting. The film opens with a prologue depicting the attempt by legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (played by Jon Voight) to ease tensions by inviting the integrated USC team to play in his still largely segregated city.
Cut to three years later, when the Woodlawn high school becomes integrated, with football coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) welcoming the arrival of such talented black players as Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille, making his screen debut), who would go on to be a formidable running back for the Miami Dolphins and nicknamed “Touchdown Tony”. But the team still struggles to compete against their rivals at Banks High School, led by Coach Shorty White (played by 80’s actor, C. Thomas Howell).
When Hank (“The Goonies”, Sean Astin) shows up at Woodlawn, introducing himself as a “sports chaplain” and asking to address the team, Coach Tandy reluctantly agrees. In his impassioned speech Hank asks the players to “choose Jesus” and much to the coach’s amazement, most of the players agree, including Tony.
In a very predictable, “Seen That Coming” turn of events, it doesn’t take long for Coach Tandy to see the light as well. Tandy suddenly undergoes a religious awakening and gets baptized in a scene featuring one of the films many, on the nose song placements with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Meanwhile, Bryant steadfastly pursues rising star Tony, even at one point showing up at his home with a suitcase in hand and announcing, “I’m not leaving here until you decide to come to Alabama”.
While I knew there would be inspirational and religious speeches abound. I didn’t expect to see a visual history lesson of a divided city known as “Bombingham”. Named after a string of racially motivated bombings, that includes the infamous 1963 explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church. While the footage and message doesn’t reach the lengths of the Martin Luther King Jr., biopic “Selma”. The Erwin Brothers do an admirable job of giving the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift. The brothers juggle the many subjects without being a muddled effort.
The two biggest stars are led by “The Goonies” and “Encino Man” star Sean Astin, who later re-teamed with the brothers for their film “Moms Night Out”. The Erwin Brothers have some personal investment into the film, as Sean Astin’s character Hank Erwin (a self-described “sports chaplain”) is portraying the directing brothers real-life father. As coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose presence looms large in “Woodlawn”, despite only having relatively little screen time. Veteran actor Jon Voight brings gravitas to the performance as he strongly plays the iconic role.
The dramatic tension is raised in several sequences, such as Tony refusing to shake Alabama governor George Wallace’s hand during an awards dinner. Tandy getting in trouble with the high school board because of his religious activities and most powerfully, Hank getting the microphone plug pulled while delivering a Prayer before the big game, only to have the thousands of spectators spontaneously recite it for him.
The Erwin Brothers film plays it all very safe, cliched and comes straight off the factory line in being very routine and adhering closely to the inspirational movie playbook. The soundtrack features great songs, but the selections are too on the nose and heard in far too many sports films. The couple songs featured of the era, are as mentioned earlier: Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright” and, of course…Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”.
The Erwins do succeed in achieving its modest goals, delivering that “Stand Up & Cheer”, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion. Featuring well-staged gridiron sequences and solid ensemble performances. While the films 2 hour and 4 minute running time, is a bit too long. You can see while watching the third act that the Erwins wants to end the film on a couple occasions, unfortunately they don’t know where to make the cut and the film ends up too long winded.
I can’t help but imagine how great “Woodlawn” would have been had it been a part of Disney’s superior line-up of sports films. Then again it’s hard to beat Disney’s “Remember The Titans” and “Invincible”. Hollywood has produced so many gridiron films that “Woodlawn” has to live up to. With “The Express”, “Rudy”, “We Are Marshall”, “Friday Night Lights” or even something more hard edged like “Any Given Sunday”. The competition is harsh out there in trying to win the coveted award for best football movie, but while “Woodlawn” will be a bit heavy handed for many with it’s religious undertones. It still finds itself as a solid effort with crunching gridiron action that is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.