Coming to redbox Tuesday, April 20th!
It’s a shameless button-pusher, but pushes them well. The Blind Side throws the weight of its big, powerful heart behind a feel-good story, blocking out most doubts about veracity or racial patronization. The result does feel good–and yes, Sandra Bullock is terrific.
Of all the horror movies I watch, all the CG and rubber gore I rarely blink at, I felt an inescapable sense of dread at the start of The Blind Side and instinctively moved to cover my eyes. The film opens with Sandra Bullock’s Southern syrup-drenched voice over, but on screen we’re seeing an old NFL film. Look, it’s the Redskins and there’s John Riggins, so it must be from the ‘80s. Yep, there’s Joe Theismann… and it’s a night game… which means a Monday night game… and… oh my god no… they’re playing the Giants… and there’s L.T….
Every football fan over 30 remembers what comes next, and as Bullock’s character explains in her narration, it changed professional football and Michael Oher’s life. Thanks to that oh-god-cover-your-eyes moment live on Monday Night Football–when Joe Theismann’s shin suddenly went 90 degrees the wrong way (a moment that in the days before YouTube was still seen over and over again on television)–the left tackle’s need to protect the quarterback’s blind side became much more important and hence much more valuable and financially lucrative.
And because of that, the real-life Michael Oher, a hulking, surprisingly quick mountain of a man, went from living on the streets at age 16 to avoid daily life in the projects to becoming a first-round draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens last spring. In fact, in one of those nifty little art-and-life serendipities, this past Monday evening I got home from a screening of The Blind Side—the wonderfully moving dramatization of Oher’s story—just in time to catch Oher himself live on TV, helping the Ravens crush the hapless Browns on Monday Night Football.
The Blind Side tells the true tale of young Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron), a looming giant growing up in a solemn, silent self-protective cocoon. Big Mike, as he’s called by others, goes anywhere in the Memphis night to escape his mother’s broken home, but he’s not getting anywhere.
Then Oher is given a couch to sleep on for a night by Leigh Anne Touhy (Bullock), an interior designer, Taco-Bell-franchise socialite, and a bona fide bull-headed, Ol’ Miss-loving, Southern belle. Michael’s night on the expensive Touhy Family couch turns into two, then a week, then a month, as all the Touhys end up helping the behemoth of a boy find his place first in the classroom and only later on the gridiron. (Football is barely mentioned during the film’s first half.)
Based on the book The Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis, the film is written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) with a sure hand for negotiating obvious sports-movie clichés past the dopey. The Blind Side may draw its inspiration from how Oher’s quiet, mammoth gentleness hides deep, protective strength, but its tone comes at you like Lawrence Taylor himself, bearing down with every heavy pound of crushing, inescapable power.
Yes, the film will blind side you. If you’ve seen the commercials and trailer you may have dismissed it as pure sap, and you’d be half-right. Because it is sappy, but it’s also incredibly effective and touching. It’s out to make you cry with joy for those rare cases when human compassion wins out over life’s unrelenting march of pragmatic cynicism.
But when you do cry, you at least feel you’ve been manipulated honestly on the up and up. You may see all the set ups coming, but Hancock makes most of them pay off so powerfully, you’ll forgive the film’s lack of subtlety. “Sure we’re going to hit you hard with 300 pounds of warm, uplifting, heart-felt sports homilies and life lessons,” says The Blind Side, “but don’t worry—we’re going to earn it every step of the way, and in the end you’ll be crying because sometimes people really do the right thing for the right reasons and in doing so change lives.” (Stick around for the credits and photos of the real Oher and Touhys–even more tears get jerked when it sinks in these people actually exist.)
Country singer Tim McGraw is clean-shaven unrecognizable as Leigh Anne’s good-natured, supportive husband, but he and the other actors portraying the family do solid work–including the requisite “cute kid,” Jae Head. Often dismissed as a one-note, journey-woman actress, Bullock is firing on all sassy cylinders here, portraying Leigh Anne Touhy as a bossy, force of nature–harnessed and focused in the service of what she feels is right. Bullock’s Leigh Anne may have moments of doubt about whether she’s acting out of white liberal guilt, and she may slip at first into that quiet, reflexive racism of low expectations as Joe Biden did when he once described Obama as “clean.” But she never lets such human failings stop her from stubbornly pushing forward.
The Blind Side is going to take some hits from critics. Released into theaters alongside Precious, it cannot help but fare poorly in head-to-head combination with that much rawer, more devastating look at how an individual might try to improve him or herself up out of crushing poverty and abuse. And with the film character of Michael presented as often mute and inscrutable, The Blind Side instead tells his story from the box-office safe point of view of Leigh Anne. We end up knowing little about the Inner Michael other than he’s big and kind and a great protector on and off the field. That’s only going to intensify cries of subversive racism: the film can be seen as yet another Hollywood-ized tale of a saintly White Person who rides in to “save” the poor Black child.
All those arguments may be valid and are worth discussing, but The Blind Side throws its considerable weight not at such tricky social issues, but rather on the side of human uplift. When I can sit and watch a film that uses both a way-too-on-the-nose Ferdinand the Bull reference and an extended cameo from Nick Saban and I still come away grinning from ear to ear and bawling my eyes out, then you know you’ve got a movie whose massive, unrelenting heart pushes any flaws out of the way.