ESPN NFL Analyst Bill Polian on The Brandon Burlsworth Story – 8/26/16
Catholic actor Neal McDonough costars in a Rudy-like faith-based inspirational sports biopic that dares to explore doubt as well as belief.
It’s clear, though, that Marty’s harshness is meant as the tough love of an older brother obliged to assume a father-figure role in the absence of their alcoholic bum of a father (Michael Parks of the Kill Bill movies in a small but affecting role). The brothers’ age difference is the basis for one of the movie’s running gags, Marty’s discomfort at being mistaken for Brandon’s father.
Obese, unathletic and clumsy, Brandon confronts his shortcomings as sports-underdog movie heroes have ever done: through determination, hard work and a limitless capacity to absorb punishment, both physical and social.
Lacking the football scholarship he absurdly hoped for, Brandon turns down full rides elsewhere to attend Arkansas. When Marty asks Barbara how she justifies going deep into debt for Brandon’s quixotic dream, she says simply, “My son knows I have faith.” This could mean faith in God, but I took it to mean that money was no object if it meant Brandon knew his mother believed in him.
It goes without saying that Brandon, making the team as a walk-on (a player who is not recruited or offered an athletic scholarship), is harassed and abused by his teammates. Even when the coach is impressed with Brandon’s dedication, he isn’t exactly nurturing: I can’t think of another movie in which someone compares the hero to horse manure and it’s meant to be encouraging.
Brandon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s a likable one. Unassuming, devout and a little dense, he never drinks, never swears and never takes anything personally. He’s always taking a knee, and he crosses himself (a curious gesture, since from his funeral his family is clearly not Catholic).
He shows up at the stadium for practice long before anyone else is there — and when one of the coaches finds him, he’s idly picking up litter in the parking lot. Asked what he’s doing, Brandon says, “Nothing,” because he really hadn’t given it a second thought.
All this plays out in flashback, with all the usual sports-movie clichés, training sequences, montages, comic relief and so forth. This has all been done, and sometimes done better, but the formula is sturdy, and Severio, in his first role, delivers well enough.
The present-day strand follows preparations for Brandon’s funeral and Marty’s internal struggle with doubt and nihilism, a struggle movingly realized by McDonough. (The devoutly Catholic McDonough, who also executive produced, has called Marty Burlsworth his favorite role.)
Marty’s struggle is not entirely internal. Nick Searcy plays an unnamed character who chats with Marty about the apparent absurdity of existence, and their discussion is a bold and unusual move, even a genre-bending move. As they chat, Searcy whittles a face on a block of wood, a symbolic quirk with a meaning made nearly explicit in a startling line.
I’m sure Josh Wheaton, the young apologist in God’s Not Dead, would know all the right things to say to Searcy’s character, but then Searcy wouldn’t be permitted to make his case so eloquently in a movie like God’s Not Dead, if he were allowed to appear at all.
Greater uses Marty to critique misguided or deficient forms of faith prior to Brandon’s death. Not as devout as his brother, Marty turns desperately to faith in a moment of crisis when he wants a miracle.
Surely, he reasons, God will be merciful; Marty would be, and he can’t be more merciful than God. Surely God will hear Brandon’s prayer, if not his own; the prayer of a righteous man avails much, and if anyone is righteous, it’s Brandon. This one painful scene is wiser than all the movies the Fireproof / Courageous people have made (including their football movie, Facing the Giants).
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The movie’s response to this question comes in the form of a metaphor. At one point on the gridiron, Brandon argues with a teammate that their perspective on the field is limited; the coach has information from a higher perspective, from a skybox where the whole field can be seen, and they need to trust him.
During Marty’s conversation with Searcy this metaphor is further developed; a pattern emerges that Marty can’t appreciate without a higher perspective. Greater’s response to the problem of evil, to disbelief and nihilism, is not an argument, but an action: a choice to trust. It’s a simple but effective response, nicely underscored by the gospel anthem I’ll Fly Away running through the film.
A coda sums up the impact of Brandon’s life: the programs, scholarships and so forth established in his name. Even in earthly terms it can be argued that Brandon’s life and achievements were not a waste. Greater, though, looks to something more than this: something greater than any loss or tragedy.
Caveat Spectator: Football roughness; some language; some thematic elements including alcoholism and religious questioning. Teens and up.
Greater: Official Trailer – Old #2
Brandon was a walk on turned All American at the University of Arkansas. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and 11 days later was tragically killed in a car accident. The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation was founded in his name and has several programs: The Burls Kids program takes underprivileged children to all Arkansas Razorback and Indianapolis Colts home games. The BBF in partnership with Walmart provides eye care to 14,000 pre-K thru 12th grade students whose working families are trying, but still cannot afford extras like eye care and do not qualify for state funded programs. We hold football camps each year in Harrison and Little Rock and we have several football scholarship and awards including the Burlsworth Trophy, a national award given out to the most outstanding Division One college football player who began his career as a walk-on.