Director : Gary Fleder
Screenplay : Charles Leavitt (based on the book Ernie Davis The Elmira Express by Robert Gallagher)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Rob Brown (Ernie Davis), Dennis Quaid (Ben Schwartzwalder), Darrin Dewitt Henson (Jim Brown), Omar Benson Miller (Jack Buckley), Nelsan Ellis (Will Davis, Jr.), Charles S. Dutton (Willie “Pops” Davis), Justin Martin (Young Ernie Davis), Justin Jones (Young Will), Nicole Beharie (Sarah Ward), Aunjanue Ellis (Marie Davis), Elizabeth Shivers (Elizabeth Davis)
Clichéd and formulaic though they may be, when uplifting sports movies are at their best--The Natural (1984) and Hoosiers (1986) immediately spring to mind--they transcend their obvious reliance on the basest of formulas with the alluring exhilaration of the human spirit at its finest. Sacrificing subtlety and innovation for big emotions and larger-than-life moral conflicts (not to mention big musical motifs), they strike at our most fundamental pressure points; hokey, sure, but also undeniably moving (unless, of course, you’re just a diehard cynic). The Express doesn’t quite reach the highest levels of this most populist of genres, partially because it’s hamstrung by both underdeveloped plot strands and overdeveloped visual style, but it still works in its own way, plowing through potential criticisms much like its titular gridiron hero plowed through tacklers.
The subject of the film is Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who, despite being the first African-American player to win the coveted Heisman Trophy, has been largely forgotten by the general public because his tragic death from leukemia at age 23 denied him the chance to play pro football, even though he was the number one draft pick in 1962. The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), which was derived from Robert Gallagher’s biography, traces a conventional arc, giving us Ernie as a child (Justin Martin) in rural Pennsylvania in the late 1940s outrunning bigoted white kids and learning important lessons from his fundamentally decent grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) before moving with his mother to upstate New York where his abilities on the football field lure the best college scouts, even though black players are still a rarity.
He is eventually lured to Syracuse, largely because his hero, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), went there. Despite being up north, Ernie still finds racism to be deeply embedded just about everywhere, including in his gruff, but brilliant coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennie Quaid), who is willing to integrate his team if it means winning football games, but still harbors a deeply ingrained sense of separation between whites and blacks. Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) gives Ernie a deep-seated sense of nobility, and the film leans a bit too heavily on this, portraying him as a literal saint in a football helmet who, with one locker-room exception, is always able to keep his anger in check. Perhaps the real-life Ernie Davis was this composed, but it feels like a dramatic conceit. Schwartzwalder, on the other hand, has a much more intriguing character arc in that his experiences with Ernie force him to come to terms with the fact that his willingness to compromise in the face of overt racial hatred (for example, not allowing Ernie to score a touchdown in West Virginia out of fear of causing a race riot) is perhaps an indication of his own internalized racism.
Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) gives The Express a slick tone, which frequently threatens to the drown the film’s otherwise exciting football games in commercialized visual excess (do we really need black-and-white inserts and shifting film grain?). The dramatic scenes carry their due weight, delivering the requisite big moments and important speeches without becoming trite or too obvious. However, because Leavitt crams so much into his screenplay, quite a bit of the story gets short shrift, especially a subplot involving Ernie’s romance with a beautiful coed who may or may not have become his wife (it’s that underdeveloped). The film’s epilogue, which follows Ernie’s triumphant winning of the Heisman with his growing sickness is both too short and too long; it doesn’t give full dramatic resonance to the tragedy of his life, but it also causes the last 15 minutes to drag when the film should be delivering a solid punch directly to the heart. The Express certainly has its moments and it tells a meaningful story that has been long overdue for cinematic treatment, but it’s never quite all that it should be.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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