Friday, October 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sweet, flawed 'Radio' has an important message

Special to The Seattle Times

The best thing about the movie "Radio" is that its tagline — "His Courage Made Them Champions" — is a lie. That his courage doesn't make them champions is one of the welcome touches in this small, good-hearted but ultimately undramatic film.

I went to the screening expecting "I Am Sam" meets "Remember the Titans." A Southern football team adopts a mentally challenged kid as their mascot, and they go about their winning ways. Yay team.

For a while I was right. It's autumn 1976 in Anderson, S.C. After every game, coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) stops by the local barbershop for a tête-à-tête with the town's men, who want to give advice, or a backslap, or just talk about the chances of the kids making it to state.

On the outskirts of town (both literally and metaphorically), James Robert Kennedy (Gooding Jr.), a mentally challenged young man, pushes his shopping cart full of junk. One day, a wayward football winds up on his side of the fence, and he takes it over the protests of the players. The next day, the players tie him up in the equipment shed and pelt him with footballs — until coach Jones discovers what's going on and the players are punished.

Movie review

"Radio," with Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Alfre Woodard, Debra Winger. Directed by Mike Tollin. Written by Mike Rich from an article by Gary Smith. 109 minutes. Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements. Several theaters.

Radio — as he becomes known, because of his penchant for radios — is invited back. Out of guilt? We're not sure, but slowly Radio becomes part of the team: half equipment manager, half mascot.

This worries the townsfolk. There may be a residue of racism in their worries, but mostly they fear Radio will be a distraction to the team. And they may be right. The team begins to lose and, in at least one instance, Radio lets the opposition know the upcoming play, but still he keeps his place on the sidelines.

We expect a turnaround for the team, but it doesn't come. Suddenly the season is over — they wind up a mediocre 5-5 — and, instead of awkward goodbyes until next season, Radio becomes further enmeshed in school life: riding the bus, acting as hall monitor and announcing lunches over the P.A. system.

Forces begin to gather against him: the buttoned-up school board and the local banker, who's (yawn) father to the star athlete. Even the principal (Alfre Woodard) is more fence-sitter than backer. "Why on earth are you doing this?" she asks coach Jones. It's the question we ask ourselves. Is he using Radio to avoid his 17-year-old daughter? Or to make up for the son he never had? When we find out an explanation — 90 minutes into the film — it's reasonable but undramatic; more of a "huh" than a "wow."

"Radio" is based upon a 1996 "Sports Illustrated" article by Gary Smith and contains its share of clichés. It could have been more sharply written and compellingly directed; the cinematography should have been grittier; and the acting, beyond Harris and Gooding Jr., is no great shakes. (Even the long-MIA Debra Winger, as Jones' wife, doesn't register.) But the story goes in unexpected directions.

We live in a winner-take-all culture, and "Radio" suggests there are more important things in life.

Erik Lundegaard:

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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