The curse of the Oscar win has been particularly cruel to Cuba Gooding, Jr. While some winners simply fade away into the ether, never to be heard of again, and others stay in the public eye and go onto many further successes, Gooding Jr has had the worst of both worlds, staying in the media spotlight while simultaneously descending into a career of almost painful mediocrity. When you consider that his recent output includes such duds as Rat Race, Snow Dogs and, worse of all, Boat Trip, it’s not hard to see why his status in Hollywood has sunk slightly lower that of the guy who directed Freddy Got Fingered. This is a real shame as he’s both a nice guy and a good actor, a talent which has been utterly wasted over the last few years. In need of something more worthwhile to do, it’s not hard to see why he chose Radio as a vehicle, a project with a bit more merit than one which involves running round a boatful of homosexual stereotypes being pursued by Roger Moore.
All actors’ eyes light up when they hear the phrase “Mental disability.” To them, and to Hollywood in general, taking on such a role gives instant credibility and kudos. Ever since Dustin Hoffman shuffled his way into people’s hearts (and cleaned up at the box office) in Rain Man there has been a steady stream of films dealing with the subject, ranging from the good (the afore-mentioned Rain Man) to the mediocre (Sean Penn’s I am Sam) to the bad (Robin Williams’ Patch Adams). This latest take is based on a true story, that of James Robert “Radio” Kennedy, a South Carolinian in the 1970s whose child-like ways one day attracts the unwelcome attention of a group of jocks on the local school's football team. Their Coach, played by Ed Harris, comes to the rescue and decides to teach the boys a lesson in understanding by employing Radio to help out at their training sessions and, later, in the school in general. Gradually the students learn first tolerance and then affection for the slow-witted boy but results on the football field begin to suffer, prompting people to wonder if the Coach is spending too much time with the boy at the expense of his team. This may seem to suggest a warped sense of priorities but in a town where the school’s sporting achievements is one of the cornerstones around which all socialising is based this is an intolerable state of affairs. The school finds itself under pressure by a deputation of local luminaries, led by bank manager and upstanding citizen Frank Clay (Chris Mulkey), to get rid of Radio and his distracting influence.
Despite the fact that the screenplay's primary source is a factual article about Radio published in 1996 in Sports Illustrated, the film is more an impression of Radio’s story than a strictly accurate account. The titles open with the caveat that the film is only "inspired by a true story" rather than based on one, and there are several key points of the tale condensed or changed, the timeframe being the most obvious example - in reality it took Coach Jones several years to coax Radio out of his shell, as opposed to the nine months depicted in the film. Racial tensions are also avoided by setting the film in the mid 1970s instead of the late 1960s when the real story began. There are various other small changes made as well –the initial incident where Radio is tied up by the Jocks is not strictly what happened – but in spite of these the impression one gets from the film’s accompanying documentaries, as well as the article itself, is that even though the details are changed, the overall picture of the story is pretty accurate – as far as it goes..
And as far as it goes is the problem. There is a constant nagging feeling through the entire film that we are only getting part of the story. The script skims the surface of some of the potentially more interesting threads of Radio's life, while the main conflicts encountered by both himself and Coach Jones feel somewhat watered down. In many ways the story is not really about Radio at all, but about Coach Jones and how Radio affected his life, but we never get to explore in-depth the conundrums he had to face and how he felt about them. The most obvious of these are what consequences his dedication to Radio had on his own family, particularly his daughter. Fairly early on she tells her father that he’s spending more time with Radio than her, but this is then forgotten about until the final reel, by which time she’s fallen for Radio’s charms as much as everyone else and she understands her father's actions. Similarly, the whole anti-Radio angle, centred on Clay and his jock son Johnny (Riley Smith), never feels as much of a threat to Radio’s continuing his new lifestyle as it should. It’s plainly obvious that many more people in the town love Radio than think he’s a nuisance, and even the Principal (Alfre Woodard), whose concerns about Radio’s unpredictable presence in her school are raised again and again, doesn’t seem that worried – when an Official Man Who Could Take Radio Away appears, she appears to resent him as much as the Coach does. Not knowing the full story behind these events, it’s difficult to judge how accurate the presentation of these elements are, but it’s difficult to believe that they were as two-dimensional as shown here.
It’s also noticeable that Radio himself is almost universally presented in a positive light. While a couple of the transgressions that cause concern among the community are shown, neither are capital offences – in one he gets over-excited at a match and reveals some of the team’s tactics to their opponents, and in another he is tricked by Johnny into walking into the girl’s changing rooms at an inopportune moment. It’s conspicuous that the one event in which Radio really does cut loose – when he tears up his room following the death of his beloved mother – occurs off screen, with the audience only seeing the aftermath, the bereaved boy sitting in a corner of the wrecked room crying his eyes out. Bearing in mind that we are dealing with a real person these choices are all completely understandable, but from a storytelling point of view they just reinforce the opinion that we are being given a slightly rose-tinted version of the story.
It’s always very hard in a film dealing with disabilities such as this to be able to judge how good the leading actor is in the role. Without a comparison to the real thing, it is difficult to say whether an actor's attempt to put across the various tics people with these problems have results in an overly caricatured performance or whether they manage to hit the right note. At the end of the film we do get a very brief glance of the real Radio but there is not nearly enough to say whether Cuba’s impersonation of him is accurate or not. As it stands, his playing is rather blunt – there’s a lot of gurning and grinning going on as well as strange walks and, at times, almost incomprehensible speech – but there is also an odd naturalism about the performance that enables the viewer to forgive suspected exaggerations. Unlike some other actors in similar roles, it is easy to sink into Radio’s personality and forget that there is an actor there (something it was hard to do completely with, say, Hoffman), a fact which Gooding should be commended for.
Similarly, Ed Harris is very good in his role, bringing across exactly the kind of persona you would expect from a successful high school football coach, both passionate and yet reserved about his own feelings. A man who in his own words “loves football”, he has both the authority and humanity needed to see why his team respect and look up to him. The secondary characters, given less to do, don’t have as much chance to shine on the screen – Mulkey and Smith are fairly mild as the “bad guys” while Alfre Woodard doesn’t have enough to get her teeth into – although mention should be given to S. Epatha Merkerson who is touchingly gentle as Radio’s mother, and Sarah Drew as Coach Jones’ daughter, who shows in her one big emotional scene that she could have done more if she’d been given it.
Director Michael Tollin does a decent job in making sure the film doesn’t get too schmaltzy. The real Coach Jones is a rather reserved, stiff upper lip man, a “typical Southerner” as he is described in one of the documentaries, which potentially could have made his relationship with Radio tricky. Fortunately, Tollin manages to get the tone exactly right, Radio and Jones’ bond coming across as both warm and believable. Tollin also gives us some meaty sports scenes – he worked closely with sports coordinator Mike Ellis to give the games an authenticity, which certainly pays off. There is not a trace of artifice about them, while the tackles feel bone-crunchingly real. (So real, in fact, that one actor had his collar bone broken during the shooting).
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Radio much, and speaking entirely critically I really shouldn’t have. It has nothing to recommend it above any other middling entries into the mental health genre, with an uneventful plot and a lack of genuine tension. However, I did find myself drawn to it, the story of Coach Jones finding Radio a place in the world being quietly touching, and the fact that it is a true story prevents me from feeling entirely guilty about being manipulated by the filmmakers. It's certainly a step up for Cuba Gooding, Jr, and a fair illustration that there is more to him than the crass nonsense he’s appeared in recently (although the film's low profile and mediocre reception probably means it won't do his career much good long-term). Perhaps ultimately the film should be regarded rather like Radio himself – uncomplicated but well meaning, and, as Coach Jones himself shows, sometimes there’s nothing so very wrong about that.
The film comes on one dual layered disk and is presented in an anamorphic 16:9 print, while the extras are all full screen. The menu is made up of a stylised montage of scenes from the film. The film itself and all extras, bar three of the trailers, are subtitled, as are the director’s commentaries, a feature always nice to see.
Although there are some scenes which exhibit a very fine layer of grain, overall the picture is good, albeit with an occasional suspicion of edge enhancement and moments of softness.
The sports scenes are the only moments that make use of the 5.1 mix, and come across with a satisfying, although not first rate, oomph. The rest of the film is fine but the soundtrack doesn’t have to work very hard.
A bit of a boring track from director Tollin, although it’s informative enough and gives good background about the reality behind the various scenes, as well as shooting information. It’s just a bit dull.
Tuning Into Radio
Twenty one minute Making Of that concentrates heavily on the casting decisions and what the actors brought to their roles. A typical featurette.
The most interesting part of this twelve minute look at the writing of the screenplay is when it’s revealed the reason Coach Jones gives for adopting Radio was actually taken, word-for-word, from the real man, a story which, up until that point, he had been reluctant to tell. Other than that it's standard stuff.
The 12-Hour Football Games of Radio
Slightly dull nine minute look at the work of sports coordinator Mike Ellis on the film. Consisting mainly of people saying how tough the sequences were to shoot, this overstays its welcome, despite its brief running time.
Six deleted scenes, all with optional commentary by Tollin. The picture quality on these is terrible, lots of compression evident, but the commentary is nice.
Selected credits for director Michael Tollin, writer Mike Rich and stars Cuba Gooding Jr, Ed Harris, Debra Winger and Riley Smith. I guess they’re useful if you want to remember what they’ve been in before and can’t be bothered getting up from the sofa.
One trailer each for Radio, Spider-Man 2, Mona Lisa Smile, Secret Window, Gothika and Welcome to the Jungle. Odd subtitling on these – Mona Lisa Smile, Gothika and Welcome to the Jungle don’t have any, the others do, but they’re in Spanish only. So, a slight improvement on disks that don’t bother subtitling their trailers at all, but not quite there yet. The Radio trailer has a clip from a deleted scene on it.
A nice inclusion, the disk includes the article by Gary Ross from Sports Illustrated which inspired the entire film and is excellent background reading. The only other inclusions here are a link to Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment’s home page and an exciting opportunity to Join the Sony Picture Network.
Radio is in no way among the front runners in the mental health genre, but it doesn’t commit any major crimes and tells a nice story in a straightforward, if simplistic way. The extras are pleasingly comprehensive for a low-profile release such as this, with the original article a particular highlight. A well meaning effort.
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7 out of 10