Pigskin politics

Probing the values of the heartland with an all-out docu-blitz.

Documentaries are often about underdogs and nonconformists, which is why this portrait of Ohio’s high-school-football powerhouse, the Massillon Tigers, is a remarkable anomaly.

The writer, director and producer of Go Tigers!, Kenneth A. Carlson, is a native of Massillon, Ohio, and he has fashioned a remarkably clear-eyed depiction of jock culture and societal groupthink. Carlson builds dramatic tension by chronicling the perpetual winners at a low moment, when Massillon’s golden boys have lost some of their luster and diminished the hopes of a town whose unity and confidence are inexorably linked to the team’s 10 weeks of gridiron glory.

The film opens with coaches visiting a newborn boy in the hospital to place a little football in his crib, a not-so-subtle indicator of what he’s expected to become. (It’s a crushing burden to Massillon’s nonjock males, who express their eagerness to leave the blue-collar town of 33,000 at the first opportunity.) Then Carlson dives straight into the Massillon Tigers’ 106th season, when the team is rebounding from 1998’s 4-6 “nightmare.”

Go Tigers! shifts smoothly from personal stories of the team’s three very different co-captains to representatives of the financially strapped Massillon school system, which desperately needs to pass a thrice-rejected tax levy or face massive cutbacks (in education, not sports, it’s clear). The responsibility of the town’s future falls squarely on the padded shoulders of the gung-ho Tigers, who seek to rally the town’s collective pride.

Carlson’s predominant technique of intercutting (one crucial game is shown side-by-side with Massillon voters casting their ballots) demonstrates just how essential good editing is to a documentary. Go Tigers! is enhanced immensely by editor Jeff Werner (Beyond the Mat), who builds the narrative with the same drive that these boys demonstrate when they play each game like a battle to be won for God and country.

This documentary is extraordinary on its own, but in these flag-waving times, it’s an essential portrait of a heartland America whose values are being held up as a model to our shaken nation.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Visit the official Go Tigers! Web site at gotigersfilm.com.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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