The Blind Side

I spent a long weekend at Dartmouth visiting my daughter Deborah. On Saturday night she played in the fall concert of the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra. The concert featured Shostakovich’s deeply disturbing Cello Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was a terrific concert, conducted with style by Anthony Princiotti. (Princiotti’s program notes are accessible in PDF here.)
My classmate and friend Dr. John Floberg also attended the concert to see his daughter Julia play. We all met up for dinner on Saturday night before the concert. John and I were classmates in Professor Peter Bien’s memorable freshman seminar on “Literature and Politics” in the fall of 1969 during our first term on campus.
At the concert’s intermission I ran into Professor Bien, now retired but looking very much like he did 40 years ago when John and I were his students. “I’m so proud of this orchestra,” he said. “When you were a student there weren’t any students in it.” When I was a student I didn’t even know of the DSO’s existence.
Like Hugh Hewitt, I went to see “The Blind Side” over the weekend, on Friday night while my daughter was rehearsing with the DSO. The Nugget Theater screen showing the film was almost full and the audience clearly enjoyed it, as I did. The movie tells the extraordinary true story of Michael Oher, the hulking young black man taken in by the (white) family of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy in Memphis.
When the Tuohy family takes him in, Oher is a fellow student of the Touhys’ kids at the Briarcrest Christian School. Oher’s previous public school record reflects an inflated 0.65 grade point average. He is essentially homeless and utterly destitute. His mother is an addict living on welfare and leaving him to his own devices. In the book by Michael Lewis on which the film is based, Lewis writes that the mother tested the limits to which one could neglect a child and still be loved by him.
George Will wrote a good review summarizing the book in the New York Times when it was published in 2006. The review stuck in my mind and made me want to see the movie.
When the book was published, Oher had graduated from high school and moved on to become a highly recruited left tackle on the University of Mississippi football team. The Baltimore Ravens selected Oher in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft; he is now in his rookie season with the Ravens. The story has developed exactly as Lewis anticipated when he wrote the book.
The movie in a sense has it all, touching on themes of race, religion, school, wealth and poverty, family, loss and redemption, welfare and dependency, not to mention the football story that is at the heart of Lewis’s book. The film is a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne Tuohy. One false note in the film is the moment when Leigh Anne comes down out of the stands to instruct Oher how to play his position when he goes out for the Briarcrest football team.
The film has taken some criticism both from the left and from the right, but it is a powerful and moving film that in great part lets a true story speak for itself. Whatever its flaws, it’s a perfect holiday film. Of that much I’m sure.
Wanting to understand what the film had done with the book, I read it on the way home on Sunday. Lewis is a gifted journalist and storyteller. In the book he skillfully weaves a number of threads from the development of professional football to Memphis, the Tuohys and Briarcrest.
He also gives the reader a lot to think about without much imposing his own view on anything but the football story. Lewis argues that among the effects created by the success of Bill Walsh on offense and Lawrence Taylor on defense is the emergence of the offensive left tackle as a position secondary in importance only to that of the quarterback on the modern NFL team.
Lewis reveals in the author’s note at the end of the book that Sean Tuohy was his classmate at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. Lewis and Tuohy were childhood friends. Working on a magazine article about their high-school baseball coach, Lewis interviewed Tuohy in Memphis. When Lewis and his wife got together for dinner a few months later, Lewis reports, they talked about Michael Oher.
“[I]t took Sean about ten minutes to get [Lewis’s wife] laughing, twenty to get her crying, thirty to ruin the meal.” But it was worth it, Lewis recalls, because in the car on the way home his wife said, “I don’t understand why you’re writing about anything else.” He credits the book to his wife’s insight. Explaining his own hesitation, Lewis writes, “[I]t seemed somehow unsporting, like hunting in a baited field, to turn to one’s kindergarten classmate for literary material.”
To my surprise, most of the film’s good lines and best scenes derive directly from the book. The film, however, seriously shortchanges several characters who contribute to the story, foremost among them Sean Tuohy. (It also shortchanges Oher’s high school football coach.) Tuohy was himself a star athlete at Ole Miss, but aside from his business success, the film portrays him as something of a doofus. It compensates for this portrayal by casting Tim McGraw to play him. (The Tuohys themselves speak warmly of the film.)
The film accurately portrays Tuohy as an extremely successful Taco Bell franchisee. Lewis reports that he owns 85 franchise restaurants in all, including some Long John Silver’s outlets. One great line from the book that the the film revises and buries is Sean Tuohy’s reflection on his flirtation with bankruptcy when Taco Bell went through its own tough times a few years ago: “The quesadilla saved my ass.”