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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Movie review: Radio ***

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There's nothing wrong with Radio that a smaller screen wouldn't have improved.

This bio-pic just begs to be a Hallmark Hall of Fame television special - at Thanksgiving, maybe, when the family is together for the day, winding down after a big meal and lots of conviviality.

That's a starry-eyed picture of Thanksgiving, you say? Well, Radio will fit right in.

The movie comes from director Mike Tollin and his producing partner, Brian Robbins, who gave the world such sports-themed works as Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, Hardwood Dreams, Summer Catch, Varsity Blues, and Hardball. It's written by Mike Rich, who came up with the screenplays for Finding Forrester and The Rookie.

See where this is headed? These are filmmakers who love sports, who use the various games as metaphors for life. And Radio does that, too.

But it seems just a little too easy, too contrived, and too manipulative.

OK, that's the bad part.

The good part is that Radio succeeds anyway. It is a marvelous story anchored by a fine cast: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, and Alfre Woodard. Even better: It is, in essence, true, based on a 1996 article in Sports Illustrated by Gary Smith.

It takes place in 1976 in Anderson, S.C., a small town filled with high school sports fans, the biggest of whom is Harold Jones (Harris), athletic director and football coach at Hanna High School.

At practice one day, the kicker boots the ball over the fence, where it is picked up by a young man who puts it in his omnipresent grocery cart and shuffles off. The young man (Gooding) is someone who is always around, always pushing that cart, never calling attention to himself. But when he fails to return the football, he gets noticed.

Coach Jones is one of the people who notices, and he begins to take an interest in the young man, who turns out to be mentally challenged. Jones and his assistant nickname him Radio because he's never without one, and it isn't long before Radio begins to help out with practices. Then he shows up at the games, passing out water, encouraging the team, joining the cheerleaders.

The football fans aren't sure why Radio is there. Some laugh, some sit in silence, some ignore him. The school principal, Lou Daniels (Woodard), fears Jones is trying to turn Radio into a glorified mascot, and she won't have it. A black woman in a mostly white town, she walks a fine line in trying to run her school, please her constituents, and be true to her beliefs.

Jones convinces Daniels that he intends to treat Radio with dignity, and she reluctantly lets the young man become part of the school fabric.

Not everyone is so understanding. Jones' wife (Winger) and daughter (Sarah Drew), used to being ignored during football season, now have to fight another distraction. The star player, Johnny (Riley Smith), resents the attention Jones lavishes on Radio. Radio's mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) is skeptical of Jones' intentions.

Events unfold in cookie-cutter precision. The only surprise is how affecting Radio is. Despite all the manipulations, all the contrivances, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the story, not to root for Radio and Jones and Hanna High.

The performances help, of course. Harris and Woodard are pros, and Winger brings a dimension to Linda Jones that would have been easy to ignore. Gooding immerses himself in the character. His use of body language to articulate what Radio's brain cannot is exquisite.

But the kicker is the end, when the real Harold Jones and Radio appear - as themselves - in sort of an epilogue to the story, one that would also seem contrived were it not obviously true. Suddenly it makes what has gone before less a manipulation than a wonderfully true story.

Whether that's a manipulation in itself doesn't matter. What matters is that it will leave you feeling good about liking Radio and his movie.



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