Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Movie review: "The Long Green Line"

"The Long Green Line" is a 2008 documentary about veteran cross country coach Joe Newton and his boys team at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Online reviews mostly rave about this film but I have to offer a slightly dissenting view. Yes, it's an enjoyable feel-good story of hard-working young athletes and the respected elder coach who leads them. The runners and the coach are likable and it's fun to root for them. But something is missing.

In this movie, we are told that Joe Newton is a great high school cross country coach. Indeed, he is seeking his 25th Illinois state cross country title. But what we don't see is WHY he is a great coach. We never see him, for instance, working with an athlete on his running form, discussing training methods (long runs versus sprints, for instance) or even advising a boy on race strategy. All he seems to do is read an inspirational quote at the beginning of each practice, and then leave the actual coaching to his assistants.

In fact, if I was to explain why Newton's teams are successful – based on what I saw in this documentary – I would say it's just a matter of sheer numbers. At the beginning of the season, Newton has his upperclassmen go around the school and recruit runners. They end up with something like 180 boys – a HUGE number for a cross country team (you only need seven!). When you start with that many runners some of them are bound to be good.

I suspect that those who know Joe Newton would say that I don't know the whole story – and that's exactly my point. The movie doesn't give us a complete picture. It assumes we will just accept that Joe Newton is a great coach without showing us how he does it.


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