Movie Review



Production Company: MGM
Director: William Bindley
Principals: James Caviezel, Mary McCormack, Jake Lloyd, Bruce Dern,
Rating: PG (mild language and sports action)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- Every once in a while, I like to bring attention to the little films—ones that aren’t award-winners, don’t have huge budgets and aren’t filled with marquee stars, but still have many qualities worth checking out.  Madison is a small film, set mostly in a small town, without jewel thieves, caped-crusaders, aliens or fast cars.  But it does have a hero, speed boats, a crisis you can care about (and maybe identify with) and a quality that can be hard to find in movies these days—wholesomeness.

Jim Caviezel and crew prep the “Miss Madison” for the race. Photo © Copyright MGM
 Madison is a great film for anyone who loves to root for the underdog, but here the underdog is the town itself.  Based on real events and set in 1971, the most important character in this film is the small town of Madison, Indiana.  Perched along the Ohio River, Madison draws its lifeblood from the waterway.  According to the opening narration, “The river gave the town its livelihood, but boat racing, gave it its identity.”  Both are now in danger.  River shipping is giving way to the cheaper trucking industry, and most of the jobs in Madison are vanishing with it.  With the town’s failing fortunes, Madison’s historic role as a stop on the hydroplane speed boat racing circuit seems destined to disappear as well. 

But, as I said, this film has a hero, played by Jim Caviezel.  Shot before he played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ – instead of playing the Son of Man, he’s playing Jimmie, the everyman.  Caviezel excels as this small-town working man, with a wife, two kids, an uncertain job future and too much financial debt.  As with much of this film, it’s refreshing to have characters and situations many of us can relate to. 

Jim Caviezel and Mary McCormack in MGM’s Madison. Photo © Copyright MGM
Jimmie does have a dramatic past though.  Eight years back, he was the driver of the town’s prize speed boat “Miss Madison.”  A terrible racing accident left him near death, but the town stood by him and his young family through his slow recovery. Jimmie is now part of the pit crew, trying to coax the aging “Miss Madison” through one more season, and perhaps to a win that will restore some of the town’s past glory.  It doesn’t take long to realize that by the film’s end, Jimmie himself will take the wheel of the “Miss Madison” and race again for the honor of the town that stood by him.

Madison is not really a film about boat racing.  It’s about small town life—how people draw pride from their hometown, and conversely, how the community is a reflection of its people.  It succeeds exceedingly well at showing the plight of single-industry towns and what happens when that industry fails and begins to take the town with it. It’s heart-wrenching to see the closed factories and boarded up stores, because we understand that behind these changes are real people trying to survive, maintain their dignity and preserve a vanishing lifestyle.     

Miss Madison in a very real sense symbolizes the town, to the outside world, and to the people of Madison itself.  Having grown up in a small town, myself, I found it completely believable and very touching to see how the town rallied behind their boat.  In so doing, they set aside their differences and rallied behind their town and each other as well.

Boats race neck-and-neck in MGM’s Madison. Photo © Copyright MGM
 As for that wholesomeness I mentioned, Madison is full of it, not the kind that aims for innocuousness, but the kind that breathes the old-fashioned virtues that we expect from a story set 30 years ago in a small Midwestern town.  We see faith and churchgoing at the center of town life, from saying grace before meals, to scenes at Sunday worship service.  Madison extols virtues like loyalty, hard work, love of family, and recognizes that there’s more to life than fancy cars and big houses.  Most of all, it’s about pride—not personal hubris, but the kind of honest, hard-earned pride shared by people who have built something good and virtuous together, like a family, a business and even a town.

Madison recalls a sweeter era in filmmaking, and is “family friendly” in the best sense.  It’s a film you can enjoy with your kids, or your grandmother.  Like a home cooked meal, Madison is warm, simple, comforting and, yes, wholesome.  In a haute cuisine world, Madison is a hot plate of meatloaf and macaroni and cheese.  And sometimes, that’s just what you want.  Dig in, and enjoy!

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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