By the end of its 1976 season, the Philadelphia Eagles' 11th losing season in a row, fans hadn't lost just faith; they'd lost patience. Times were tough economically, and even grimmer for anyone who lived vicariously through the local gridiron franchise - something almost everyone we meet in Invincible does.
Things had gotten ugly. To the extent there were crowds at home games at all, they were more like angry, taunting mobs. So it was no surprise when owners brought in a young, new coach fresh off a Rose Bowl win. What former UCLA head Dick Vermeil did immediately upon starting work, however, took the city by surprise. In a move that said in effect to the community, "Think you can do any better? Let's see what you've got," he announced that the team would hold open tryouts.
Greg Kinnear plays the rookie coach and infuses his performance with an edge and intensity we haven't seen often from him. Mark Wahlberg is, of course, another matter. Intensity is his middle name. The actor brings to his latest role a vulnerability and quiet, unassuming quality that are equally unique in his body of work.
He stars as Vince Papale, a real-life Philadelphian who in 1976, at the age of 30, found himself deserted by his wife, laid off by the school where he'd taught part-time, and forced to pick up whatever hours he could serving drinks at a friend's bar. He was a die-hard Eagles fan and every bit as down on his luck as the franchise. His preferred means of letting off steam, if Brad Gann's screenplay can be relied upon (and there is some question about that), was bashing holes in the walls of his apartment with pieces of furniture and playing football in a local sandlot with his drinking buddies.
We see at once that he's in a league of his own compared to these aging laborers and out-of-work weekend warriors. When the call goes out to all the able-bodied men in the area, Papale's circle pushes him to make an appearance. At first he passes. He doesn't want to let them down. Ultimately, of course, and for precisely the same reason, he relents.
The gimmick is a masterstroke for the coach. The tryouts are the center of media attention and rekindle public interest in the flawed squad. The impression the viewer is left with, however, is that Vermeil didn't expect to actually discover a diamond in the rough, and wouldn't have given it a second thought if he hadn't. Headlines were what he was really looking for, and those he got in spades, along with a lot of deluded wannabes.
When Papale survives the first cut and then a second and a third, no one is more surprised than he is. That's one of the qualities that make him a particularly sympathetic character. There's nothing cocky or showboaty about him. He's humble in the face of the opportunity presented him and determined not to squander it.
When he begins a relationship with the dive's new barkeep (Elizabeth Banks) and it begins to turn serious, he puts it on hold so it won't cause him to lose focus. In one understated but telling scene, Papale goes for a grueling run through the city. Soaked in sweat, he huffs and puffs his way home, looks around his empty apartment, realizes that nothing there matters to him anymore, and turns around to start the workout all over again.
Not only is this a Disney film, it's a Disney film from the producers of The Rookie and Miracle. So we are not exactly flabbergasted when our hero survives further cuts to earn a place on the Eagles' starting lineup. Some feel-good films would stop there, but the creators of Invincible are intent upon serving up a double shot of odds-beating.
The picture offers the story of both Papale's reversal of fortune and that of the team itself, suggesting the events were linked. First-time director Ericson Core shrewdly combines the two turnarounds for maximum dramatic impact. The former cinematographer is so skillful in mirroring Papale's triumph with the Eagles' that you may be on your way home from the cinema before it hits you that the climactic achievement of the team actually consists of winning just one game. But, hey, it was a corker!
As I mentioned, published reports have suggested that the movie's script plays as fast and loose as its subject once did. Papale did play college ball, for example, though Wahlberg is shown in the trailer and TV spots claiming he didn't. Likewise, the extent to which Papale personally contributed to the franchise's rise in the rankings evidently has been, um, enhanced for dramatic purposes.
If you travel to the multiplex in search of a history lesson or a documentary record of what happened in Philadelphia that bicentennial year, this may not be the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you're open to the story of a real-life Rocky Balboa - whose fictional saga was set in the same town in the same period - you're likely to find this a touching, stirring story, even if it has been given the Hollywood treatment.