A publicity slogan is an unreliable source of information, but the promotional tagline attached to Radio turns out to be a useful decoder. I couldn’t figure out at first why the uplifting emotion peddled isn’t honestly earned in this feel-good weepie, which is inspired by the real story of a white South Carolina high school football coach in a small town and the black, mentally challenged young man he took under his wing as a friend and team assistant in the 1970s.
”Radio” is assembled from small, hard stones of ignorance and intolerance paved over by large, mushy examples of community goodness. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. in a busy display of halting locomotion as James Robert ”Radio” Kennedy, nicknamed because of the many discarded radios he collects, and Ed Harris, clad in a Bear Bryant hat and durable humanitarian ideals, as Coach Harold Jones. And whenever audience compassion fatigue threatens to set in as Coach smiles anew at Radio’s childlike enthusiasm, director Mike Tollin (who has produced a handful of sports-builds-character movies) and screenwriter Mike Rich (who hit a solid triple with ”The Rookie”) wisely cut to infectious small-town football fever, shaking cheerleader pom-poms on behalf of tolerance, inclusion, and the ice-breaking effects of Radio’s color-blind sunniness on the local, mostly white citizenry.
The PR slogan, though, tips the producers’ hand. ”His courage made them champions,” it declares, summing up the congratulatory tone that overcooks the message: Dignity, hard enough to come by, must be ratcheted up to courage, decency amped to the quality of championship. It’s a mercy that no one gets called a hero, and it’s a dodge that racism never speaks its name. (Only the commanding African-American actress Alfre Woodard, playing a high school principal with her reliable blaze, is allowed to mention Radio’s race in the course of voicing her concerns about his unregistered presence on school grounds. Her story is the one we want to see.)
In a small supporting role, Debra Winger plays Linda Jones, the loving wife who leaves dinner on the table for when her Coach comes home late from his labors. And when we first see her, Linda is holding a copy of Betty Friedan’s ”The Feminine Mystique” – her feminist reading pleasure. The book choice is one more small, primping detail in a movie overloaded with noble signifiers. In the spirit of inclusiveness, her courage too makes for champions.