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Uplifting 'Radio' tunes to reality rather than tears

The gentle story of a retarded young man who becomes the mascot of a football team remains sincere without being sappy.

October 24, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Playing a character whose primary characteristic is transparent goodness must present a special challenge to an actor, as villains and crazies are inherently colorful. Yet in the quietly affecting "Radio," Ed Harris rises to the occasion. Aided by Mike Rich's carefully nuanced script and Mike Tollin's direction, which is uncommonly low-key for material that is inherently heart-tugging and uplifting, Harris gives his small-town South Carolina high school football coach an aura that is at times saintly without turning the man into a saint.

Harris' Harold Jones is a notably secure and centered man who loves football and coaching, as well as his devoted wife, Linda (Debra Winger), and daughter Mary Helen (Sarah Drew), a high school junior and cheerleader. One day in 1976, Coach Jones discovers that nine members of his football team have tied up a mentally challenged young black man and placed him in a shed. He metes out strong punishment for the perpetrators, and the team moves on, but the young man, who hangs around outside the football field's chain-link fence, has caught the coach's attention.

He is James Robert Kennedy, nicknamed "Radio" for his passion for radios, which he collects and tinkers with. Radio is easily pleased but also easily frightened. According to Radio's stalwart, loving mother (S. Epatha Merkerson), a doctor told her that her son is "just like everybody else except that he's slower than most." He is nearly mute when Coach Jones begins to reach out to him, and the strength of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s understated portrayal is that he shows Radio's flowering under the coach's growing interest in him. In short, the coach believes that it is only right that Radio be made to feel a part of the community, and gradually he becomes a mascot first for the team and then the school itself.

"Radio" is a gentle film yet develops increasing dramatic tension beneath its easygoing, fair-minded surface. Mary Helen is already feeling neglected by her father when he becomes concerned with Radio's welfare, and the high school's wise and dedicated principal (Alfre Woodard), while responding to Radio the same way as the coach, must always make sure that Radio melds in with the more than the 1,000 students who are her primary responsibility. These are issues that have the potential to be resolved through reason and understanding.

But the local bank president (Chris Mulkey), whose son (Riley Smith) is a football star, is another matter. The coach is well-respected and well-liked in the community, but the question is whether his commitment to do the right thing by Radio can resonate as loudly as the banker's contagious winning-is-everything philosophy, which leads him to believe that the coach is allowing Radio to distract him from guiding his team to victory.

"Radio" is a fictionalized treatment of a true story that came to Tollin's attention in Gary Smith's 1996 Sports Illustrated article "Someone to Lean On" about the actual Kennedy. Rich's script is very good at suggesting the sometimes surprising capacity of people to understand and to change -- and also the capacity of others to close their minds and let others think for them. Rich and Tollin, who have an extensive background in sports programming, have a feel for the power of high school football in small-town America -- particularly in the South -- that gives their film a much-needed sense of authenticity.

Rich has brought considerable depth to the roles he has created, which in turn allows Tollin to support Gooding's and Harris' fine portrayals with an array of performances of equally high caliber from a carefully selected cast. The makers of "Radio" have not been afraid to be sincere, yet they have avoided the mawkish. "Radio" is not nearly the unalloyed "triumph of the human spirit" tale it sounds like but instead acknowledges that in life victories more often than not are accompanied by losses.




MPAA rating: PG, for mild language and thematic elements

Times guidelines: Appropriate family entertainment

Cuba Gooding Jr....Radio

Ed Harris...Coach Jones

Alfre Woodard...Principal Daniels

S. Epatha Merkerson...Maggie

Debra Winger...Linda

A Columbia Pictures release of a Revolution Studios presentation of a Tollin/Robbins production. Director Mike Tollin. Producers Tollin, Brian Robbins, Herbert W. Gains. Executive producers Todd Garner, Caitlin Scanlon. Screenplay Mike Rich. Cinematographer Don Burgess. Editors Chris Lebenzon, Harvey Rosenstock. Music James Horner. Costumes Denise Wingate. Production designer Clay A. Griffith. Art director Thomas Minton. Set decorator Robert Greenfield. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

In general release.

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