October 25, 2003 -- “Radio” is a sports drama based on a true story. Unlike most sports movies, it celebrates humanity and avoids clichés. Despite what you may have heard about this film, it is not overly sentimental. It is not manipulative. It is not sappy, nor is it any other code word that some critics use for movies that aren't cold, cynical and heartless enough to suit their tastes. Why is this gentle film under attack? Lots of reasons, none of them good ones, read on. When is the last time you saw a sports movie that didn't end with “the big game?” The story zigs every time you think it is going to zag. The ending is a shocker. It's main character is sweet, but very unpolished. The film does not gloss over his shortcomings, but it does celebrate his humanity. It celebrates qualities like love, forgiveness, generosity, compassion and tolerance.
Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Junior stars as the title character, a retarded man who hangs out by the high school team's practice field, named Radio because of his fondness for radios and music. One day the players decide to tie him up and torture Radio as a joke. The coach, Harold Jones (played by four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris of “The Hours”), for reasons of his own, decides to take Radio under his wing and lets him help out with the team. Gradually Radio begins to open up. He begins to become a part of the community. He even helps the school sports teams by teaching them the value of teamwork and unselfishness. One great scene has Radio getting a whole truckload of Christmas presents. What does he do with this sudden wealth of presents? He immediately gives them away to other people, of course. Naturally, there are some people who can't stand Radio, and they try to send him away. The school principle (played by the award-winning Alfre Woodard) also has reservations about having a mentally-challenged man hanging around the school. Frank Helton, a local banker, is Radio's most entrenched opponent. He petitions the school board, trying to get Radio banned from school. Frank's son, Johnny (Riley Smith of “Eight-Legged Freaks”), the school's star athlete, also makes life tough for Radio, playing one prank on him that almost gets Radio kicked out of school.
Although Radio is portrayed as a good, unselfish person. He is far from perfect. He sometimes causes the school trouble by yelling the wrong things during games, and getting penalties, or otherwise hurting the team. He also makes other mistakes at school and at home. He is not portrayed as some kind of saint. He is not shown to have some kind of innate wisdom (like Forrest Gump, for instance). He is just a person with a generous heart, who is willing to forgive those who have wronged him. In fact, Radio is not unique. I've seen lots of other people like him, happy, kind, generous, simple people. Once, I heard a true story about a Special Olympics competition which is illustrative. During a race, one of the competitors fell down. The rest of the competitors, seeing what had happened, stopped, came back and helped the runner up. They all locked arms and walked across the finish line together. Maybe some people get jealous that some people can be this happy, kind and generous at the same time. Maybe you have to have some minimum threshold of intelligence to be a truly selfish, evil person. All I know is that it is wrong to begrudge anyone their happiness, their lack of worry, or their generosity. To do so is mean-spirited and small-minded.
Perhaps there is something more fundamental going on here, so to speak. The movie does show Radio and the coach going to church. It seems clear that Radio's values of forgiveness and generosity are Christian values (although these values are shared by many other religions and ethics systems). Radio's childlike adherence to Christian values could be another reason this film has come under attack by some critics. Religion, after all, can a very contentious issue for some.
A story celebrating a person like Radio also runs against the grain of American values. According to the tenets of the popular conservative dogma of social Darwinism, Radio should be warehoused (strictly speaking, he should be killed) because he will never be a “contributing” member of society in the traditional sense. From the standpoint of the social Darwinist, Radio's generosity of spirit, his selflessness, his joy of living, in short, his humanity, is of no value whatsoever. According to this system of beliefs, a person only has value in so far as he contributes in some way to the creation of capital. The sports equivalent of this view is that you have no value as a person unless you contribute to a winning team. This attitude permeates modern American society. That includes the virtue of spending money. In our society, a person like Radio has no value. The same holds true for Mother Theresa, St. Francis or Jesus, for the same reasons. Therefore, a movie which tries to argue that such a person has value in terms other than wins or losses or dollars and cents will meet with a certain amount of resistance, especially in a non-spiritual society such as ours.
At the end of the movie, we see the real Radio (James Robert Kennedy), and, indeed, he seems just as happy, and behaves in much the same way, as the character in the movie. We also see the real coach Harold Jones at the end of the film. One the main reasons this film works is great performances by a very talented cast. Gooding and Harris both give the kinds of performances you expect from such exceptional actors. It is wonderful to see Debra Winger (“Shadowlands”) again. She appears in too few films. She plays coach Jones' wife, Linda. Sarah Drew is good as the coach's daughter, Mary Helen Jones. Dependable Alfre Woodard gives another strong performance here. S. Epatha Merkerson (a regular on the “Law and Order” TV show) is also very effective as Radio's mother, Maggie. The cinematography by Don Burgess, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is very good, as is the production design. The film was shot in Walterboro, South Carolina (the actual story took place in the 1970s in Anderson, South Carolina). The sets and location shots are very evocative of the proper time and place. The football and basketball games are extremely well staged (a number of quality athletes were recruited for the teams shown in the film). The southern accents also sound authentic. I like the post-game conferences at the local barbershop. They reminded me of similar scenes in “Hoosiers.”
One of the reasons I liked this film is that it avoids most sports clichés. It is really not about sports at all. Sports is just the backdrop to the story. It is not about whether the team wins or loses. Rather, it is about whether or not people will treat Radio humanely. The struggle Coach Jones faces is a spiritual struggle. He has to fight hard to ensure that Radio will be treated with dignity and compassion, even though Radio can't hold a real job and he can't help the team win. It ought not be such a struggle to do this. That it took such an struggle to make a small place for Radio in this community is a sad commentary on our society. I suspect that same struggle is even more difficult today, 30 years after the time of this story. Even so, there are people like Radio all over this country. Their presence is a tribute to the power of the human spirit, and to the continued presence, diminished though they may be, of spiritual values. This film rates a B.
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