Fight of the Tigers 

Go Tigers! tells the universal story of American high school sports, but with more at stake.

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In every great film, there’s a moment where you get that tingle that lets you know you’re watching something special. Sometimes it’s front-and-center, like the opening tracking shot in Touch of Evil. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you until the final moments, like it does in Memento. But it’s there, and it’s the thing that keeps lovers of film slogging, hip-deep, through years of cineplex garbage, just on the off-chance that they’ll find that moment.

In Kenneth A. Carlson’s documentary Go Tigers! that moment occurs about half an hour in, with a sequence showing the preparation of fans, band members and players for the opening season football game of the Massillon (Ohio) High School Tigers. We’ve seen montages like it before. This one could have been a straightforward depiction of the various elements of a Massillon home game, and it probably would have conveyed all the necessary thematic touchstones. Carlson turns it into a bravura piece of filmmaking, an almost operatic interpretation of how a simple game played by kids becomes the very pulse of Massillon. In the space of just a few electrifying minutes, Carlson immerses you in the world of Massillon football.

And once you’re immersed, you’ll find it a more compelling world than anything created by CGI special effects this movie year. As Go Tigers! unfolds, it becomes clear that Massillon isn’t just a football town—it’s the football town. A Rust Belt relic perched just 10 miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Massillon puts 15,000 fans in the stands for its high school football games, and has done so for 100 years. Baby boys literally are handed an orange-and-white ball on the day they’re born. Die-hards like Jacqueline “Tiger Lady” Rush fill their homes with Tigers paraphernalia. “Football-mad” doesn’t begin to describe Massillon. Football defines Massillon.

Carlson’s film follows the Massillon High team through its pivotal 1999 season, as the town faces a fiscal crisis that could cripple the school system. Only a special tax levy can preserve jobs and school programs, placing a massive burden on the shoulders of these teenagers. Coming off a disappointing 4-6 season in 1998, they need to play like the life of Massillon football depends on it.

On its most fundamental level, Go Tigers! works the way all great sports movies work, yanking you into the games and building momentum toward the climactic confrontations. Carlson’s impressionistic renderings of Massillon’s games breathes new life even into such predictable elements as the “winning streak” montage, and the real-life crises facing the team—like injuries to star quarterback Dave Irwin and linebacker Danny Studer—add even more drama to the proceedings. As the season-ending showdown with archrival McKinley draws near, you’ll be cheering along with the Massillon faithful.

The small miracle of Carlson’s direction is that you may not always feel good about doing so. Go Tigers! paints a portrait of the Massillon program that’s not particularly pretty, capturing everything that’s most disturbing about the winning-is-everything ethos of American sports. We learn that co-captains Irwin and Studer were held back after their eighth grade school year, a relatively common practice in Massillon, giving potential stars a chance to be bigger and stronger than the high school students fielded by their competitors—“That’s an individual right we all have in this country,” Massillon coach Rick Shepas comments disingenuously. Accusations swirl around the program that Massillon illegally recruited away a top running back from a nearby rival school. Football boosters pooh-pooh the notion that the district’s fiscal crisis should be resolved by cutting sports, making claims like, “I’ve seen that pigskin do things for people in this town that a textbook never has, and never could.” As the pivotal election day draws near, it’s hard not to be struck by the notion that losing football might be the best thing that could happen to Massillon’s sense of priorities.

Then, just when he’s got you leaning in one direction, Carlson will whip you back the other way. Senior defensive end Ellery Moore becomes a central figure in the story, relating how a life of crime and drug dealing turned around after a year in prison. “Football saved my life,” Ellery says matter-of-factly, and as you watch him rallying the troops, it suddenly becomes easier to buy into every coach’s cliché about sports building character, leadership skills and a sense of responsibility.

What Go Tigers! accomplishes, quite remarkably, is simply a 100-minute encapsulation of the long-running debate over the role of sports in America, particularly American institutions of learning. Instead of doing it with talking heads exchanging pithy comments, Carlson uses one team over the course of one year, touching on so many facets of the subject that no matter what opinion you might have held going in, the other side starts to make sense. The Tiger players become heroic figures upholding a vaguely twisted tradition, fighting for their school in a more literal sense than most high school teams.

If Carlson had managed nothing more than a snapshot of one unique American town, Go Tigers! still would have been fascinating viewing. By turning that snapshot into a broader American canvas, he turns the sports movie into an opera of characters and social commentary, every new twist and turn set to the roar of a crowd whose sense of identity rests on the shoulders of 17-year-old boys.

Go Tigers! (R) **** Directed by Kenneth A. Carlson. Featuring Dave Irwin, Danny Studer and Ellery Moore.

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