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At Left Tackle, A Saint

February 15, 2010
The Blind Side

Quinton Aron is the enigmatic Michael Oher, a homeless teen taken in by Sandra Bullock's no-nonsense Christian mama in The Blind Side.

Cosmetic surgery is commonly seen as a shallow, and ultimately futile, attempt to resist the inevitable effects of aging. It’s the physical evidence of a character flaw, an insecurity in one’s self that can only be dulled by the tightening of one’s skin. I admit to sharing some of this cultural prejudice. But for actresses, I withhold judgment. Their faces are their calling card. Any visible sign of aging can disqualify them from the majority of female roles on offer. I don’t blame an actress who erases her crow’s feet or inflates her lips. She’s simply trying to maximize her earning potential for as long as possible. It’s the movie star equivalent of going to grad school.

Sandra Bullock is a fine example. At 45, she still pulls off playing the love interest of younger actors like Bradley Cooper (35) and Ryan Reynolds (33). But cosmetic surgery has also deprived her once-radiant eyes of much of their expressiveness. In The Blind Side, she turns that weakness into a strength.

As Leigh Anne Tuohy, the type-A Christian supermom who takes in a homeless black teen who becomes a football star, Bullock must maintain a nearly constant mask of stiff resolve. The immobile skin around Bullock’s eyes gives intimidating force to her glares. Facial work also adds a measure of credibility to the role of a wealthy interior decorator. Bullock is receiving deserved accolades for the part. But her performance is 80% acting, 20% botox. Not mentioning the role cosmetic surgery plays in her achievement would be like reviewing Raging Bull and not mentioning DeNiro’s weight gain.

While the film purports to dramatize the true story of Michael Oher, a crack mother’s son who became an All-American offensive lineman, Tuohy is the real protagonist of this film, written and directed by John Lee Hancock. Appropriately, the film opens with her voice, as she narrates a montage of NFL Films clips illustrating the importance of the left tackle. This remarkable sequence is easily the best montage in a film full of them (and sometimes full of it). It explains a complex sports concept in clear, accessible terms. And it’s all done via the charming idiom of an airless southern mama. “The ideal left tackle is big,” drawls Bullock. “He’s wide in the butt and massive in the thighs. He has long arms, giant hands and feet as quick as a hiccup.”

Cut to Oher (Quinton Aaron)—AKA “Big Mike”–a big lumbering boy with a wide butt, long arms and giant hands. This match of Tuohy’s voiceover with Oher’s image sets the pattern for a film that is largely about how Tuohy knows and sees Oher, not the other way around.

Tuohy first spots Big Mike as she and her family are driving home on a rainy night from her daughter’s volleyball match at Wingate Christian Academy in Memphis, Tenn. Big Mike, who was recently admitted to the school for his athletic potential despite his below-average IQ, is walking in the only pair of clothes he owns: a tattered periwinkle polo and baggy black shorts. Her cross prominently displayed on her neck, Tuohy orders her husband Sean (Tim McGraw, in a thankless but genial role) to turn the car around. Sporting blow-dried hair, emphatic makeup and a skin-tight pantsuit, Tuohy asks Big Mike where he’s going. “The gym,” he says. Do you have anywhere to stay tonight, she asks. “Don’t you dare lie to me,” Tuohy barks. The shy and quiet Big Mike shakes his head, and Tuohy shuffles him into the car.

The first quarter of the film paints a convincing portrait of a privileged white family and the nearly mute black boy suddenly living under their roof. After seeing imagery of Big Mike’s dismal life in the ghetto, we share his wonder when the Tuohys’ luxury SUV first pulls into the driveway of the family’s mansion. On his first night in the house, Leigh Anne worries about whether he’ll steal anything. We get a glimpse of the tradeoffs that allow Leigh Anne to be both involved mother and career woman, as the family eats a store-bought Thanksgiving dinner in front of a widescreen TV.

Oddly, the film begins to lose its footing when Big Mike starts playing football. Despite his size, he’s a “creampuff,” says the dismayed Wingate coach, as Big Mike stops mid-block to gaze skyward at somebody’s lost balloons. To get him in shape, the Tuohys’ youngest son S.J. (Jae Head) leads him through one of those hokey and unconvincing training sequences highlighted by Big Mike shoulder-pressing S.J. above his head. With his whistle and clipboard, S.J. is overly precocious by more than half.

Only much, much later in the film is Big Mike is given an opportunity to say whether he even wants to play football. Without foregrounding the issue, the film leads us to assume that Big Mike understands the exchange: he plays football, and he gets to stay in school and the Tuohys’ home. What homeless kid wouldn’t go for that deal? For a Hollywood film, The Blind Side shows a surprising level of class consciousness.

Like so many sports films before it, The Blind Side makes Big Mike’s transformation into a star athlete the product of a lightbulb moment of realization, rather than the product of hard work, motivation and mental preparation that underlie real athletes’ ascension to the top of their sport. In Big Mike’s case, it’s an appeal to his “protective instincts.” Once he realizes protecting the quarterback is like protecting Leigh Anne, he’s transformed from pushover to force.

After S.J. makes a CD of Big Mike and sends it to the top football schools in the South, Big Mike becomes the focus of a fierce recruiting drive. Hancock subjects us to the painful spectacle of real Division I coaches (Lou Holtz, Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville, among others) pretending to have to treat S.J. like he’s Big Mike’s prepubescent agent. Saban is particularly wooden.

Unlike most sports films, the source of the greatest dramatic tension is not whether Wingate will win the “big game,” but whether Big Mike can do well enough in school to qualify to play football in college. After he fails miserably at written tests, teachers start giving him oral exams, and find that he’s much smarter than he seems. The Tuohys hire American movies’ go-to girl for matronly sass—Kathy Bates—to tutor Big Mike. Unsurprisingly, she gets the movie’s best line. “There’s something you should be aware of before you hire me,” she tells Leigh Anne. “What’s that?” “I’m a Democrat.”

Only in the film’s closing act is Big Mike asked whether he wants to play football. The question follows an NCAA investigation into whether the Tuohys adopted Big Mike because they wanted him to play for the University of Mississippi, their alma mater.

When Big Mike stands up to the NCAA rep to defend his decision, Aaron’s delivery is unconvincing, and we realize it’s because the character has never been given any chance to express a personality of any kind. He’s a guileless cipher with saint-like tendencies and pet-like loyalty.

By portraying him as an unfailingly polite gentle giant utterly devoted to his adoptive family, the film sidesteps any ambivalence a white viewer might have over caring about an uneducated black teenager from the ghetto. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire offers a telling contrast. Both films feature a black teen from a dismal background. But where Precious rubbed our noses in its lead character’s flaws, The Blind Side portrays Michael as if he doesn’t have any. The epilogue shows footage of the real Michael Oher being picked in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens and it’s a shock: Oher strides on stage with a swagger we never got to see in Aron’s performance or Hancock’s script.

Ultimately, this movie wants us to identify with Leigh Anne’s protective instincts, not Michael’s. Leigh Anne is the perfect mom: she has a high-powered career that’s flexible enough to allow her almost limitless time to go to practices and meet with teachers, she’s borne two children but still has a flawless body and a beautiful face, she’s an autocrat in her home but her children and husband are willing subjects. Despite her stubborn and righteous demeanor, she never yells, never fights—a stern glance and a clear order are enough to get any family member to stay in line. What woman doesn’t dream of that kind of discipline?

Despite the film’s basis in a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, Hancock’s film is ultimately more interested in selling us a fantasy. The overall narrative may be true, but the conflict-free family life of the Tuohys’ rings false. According to the film, Oher’s presence caused no strain on Leigh Anne’s and Sean’s marriage. In its idealized portrait of Leigh Anne, The Blind Side is telling moms and prospective moms everywhere that they can save the world at the same time as they have obedient children, a devoted husband and a successful career. Which isn’t to say you can’t. You just can’t without quite a few more fights and emotional breakdowns. The Blind Side would have had a bit more resonance if it didn’t show such “protective instincts” towards the real Tuohy clan. In The Blind Side, uplift sacks reality.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 4:46 pm

    Ha! “It’s the movie star equivalent of going to grad school”–you crack me up. It’s great to see you posting here again.

  2. Adam Marks permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:03 pm

    You are a good guy at writing about movies. Next up, The Book of Eli? Loved that ish.

  3. skip permalink
    February 15, 2010 11:15 pm

    Another distinction between Precious and Blind Side- Oher is rescued by a white woman, while Precious is saved by a couple of black women (light skinned as they might be) Could white liberal guilt regarding the “black/red/blue people needing to be saved by a literally-white knight” trope account for the vastly different critical receptions to these two films?

  4. July 27, 2010 2:03 am

    Sandra Bullock is hott. What a MILF. She is one on my all time favorites.

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