American Underdog is a real-life Rudy combined with all the Rocky films put in an acceptable-to-most-folks Christian film structure. As a feel-good story of a real-life underdog, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, it’s well acted and generally well produced. It’s better than the traditional television “movie of the week,” and it’s very engaging because it’s true. As a “Christian film,” it is way above the average and marks a rather significant development in a couple of ways.
One, it is clearly more aimed at a general audience than most films about Christian believers have been in the last couple of decades. The story, of course, is as American as it gets, especially being about football, love, struggle, and success. That’s of general interest, and the story doesn’t have to add anything to its already dramatic story arc. So it’s more story-driven and less didactic, as didacticism has almost always been a weakness in Christian films.
Two, because it’s aimed at a wider audience, it can be accused of watering down the faith elements of the story, which are real and powerful in their own right. I found the faith elements to be thinner than I expected, including the removal of “Thank you, Jesus!” from his famous “First Things First” speech upon winning the Super Bowl. Is that a compromise? I can’t (and won’t) judge. The film ultimately doesn’t back away from the faith journey that Brenda and Kurt went on, but the story focuses more on their relationship and the failure-to-success journey of Kurt.
One problem handled well is the fact that the Warners’ story doesn’t fit neatly into the “I got saved and then followed Jesus closely right away.” The film doesn’t back off from showing, if discretely in terms of imagery and dialogue, that the two lived together for a season before getting married. It’s actually confusing from a Christian perspective what they were both thinking and why, but the film manages to be honest about it without letting that part of the story distract from the main plot lines.
The film is generally competently directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin (the brother team behind I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn, among others) and that only occasionally gets preachy or engages in too many platitudes, another weakness of many Christian films which violate the “show-don’t-tell” guide of most good films. Some of the dialogue could easily have been cut in half, with the last “lesson” or “wise saying” part left to be inferred by the viewer. But again, the storytelling approach is an improvement over previous such films.
Another strength is the talent and charm of its leads. Though this is Warner’s story, his wife Brenda is way more than “the girlfriend” and “the wife” here, much to the film’s benefit. Having Oscar-winning actress Anna Paquin (The Piano) play Brenda gives the film its strong center, especially in terms of her acting. Paquin admitted her hesitance about playing a person of faith, since she herself doesn’t share Brenda’s Christian faith. But like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Paquin found a way of inhabiting a character with strong Christian beliefs when she was initially challenged by the very idea. (Most expressions of Christian faith by non-believing actors are way off the mark, usually falling into a dramatic extreme or ending up being embarrassing or condescending. Sorry—that’s been my experience.) Paquin’s talent and the ample room the picture gives Brenda hold the film together. Without her struggles in life and in her faith, the film would be simplistic and much less rich than it is.
This is not to take away from Zachary Levi’s portrayal of Warner. Levi is a multi-talented actor and singer (TV’s “Chuck,” Disney’s Tangled, and Broadway’s She Loves Me). His acting isn’t necessarily deep or wide, but he more than makes up for it with amiability and charm. He certainly looks the part, and he clearly bulked up for the role. Ironically, unlike the usual Hollywood approach, the real Kurt Warner is actually better looking than the guy playing him. But I’m not sure there is another actor who looks enough like Warner and is built like him who could bring the charm that Levi brings to this (and to be honest, every) role.
Many a film has been described as one that is “so needed” during this dark time. This is one of those films. There are few underdog stories as compelling and heart-breaking as Warner’s. (I’m not going to spoil the film, but if I’d written the script, my old screenplay professor would have insisted that I cut out one of the real things that happened in this story because it was “over the top” and too dramatically unbelievable.)
If you need a feel-good film right now, this is the one for you, especially since it’s true. As a “Christian film,” it is a fascinating step into a more mainstream approach—hence a kind of experiment. But I’m encouraged that except for a few platitudinous moments, it’s a dramatically solid if traditional film.