Title: The Express
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Director: Gary Fleder
Screenwriters: Charles Leavitt, Robert Gallagher
Starring: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Clancy Brown
The industry response to The Express seems to be non-existent, and that’s not surprising. Anyone who sees the ads or reads the synopsis would be forgiven for asking whether we needed this movie: a Remember the Titans-like story of black athletes who defy the odds in a (more) racist time (see also: Glory Road). We probably didn’t need it. But don’t look now: it’s actually pretty good.
One big reason is that its view of racism is considerably more nuanced than the other films to attempt this story. When Ernie Davis (Finding Forrester‘s Rob Brown) first walks across the mostly lily-white campus of Syracuse University in 1958, he isn’t spit on and despised; he’s ignored, a nonentity. Racism sometimes takes a violent form here — the Orangemen’s visit to West Virginia is horrifying, and entirely believable — but mostly its barriers are subtler and less literal. Davis’s tough coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), is neither a monster nor a saint: as one character puts it, “Coach loves winning more than he dislikes Negroes.”
The film is less about football than about the difficulty of being an icon. When Davis became a star — first as a player, then as a Heisman Trophy contender, then all-too-briefly as a member of the Cleveland Browns — his ability to make choices for his own well-being evaporated. Jackie Robinson, then in his heyday, is mentioned as a guy who’s “doing a lot without sayin’ nothin’,” and we think how outrageously difficult it must have been for him. You often hear about minorities who achieve prominence being saddled with the burden of “representing” their race/nationality/religion; this film, surprisingly, attempts a thoughtful — if dutifully uplifting — exploration of that concept. To that end, The Express tries to avoid Big Game clichés, leaving the last act almost entirely football-free. The real climax of the film, when things come full-circle and an early scene is replayed with different players in the same roles, is almost shockingly low-key for what is putatively a big, bombastic sports movie. And I found the closing montage more upsetting than rousing, though I will admit that it was probably intended to be the latter. After all this is, despite its uncommon virtues, an avowed crowdpleaser.
Visually and formally, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. It veers uneasily between urgency and jazzy nostalgia. It is overstylized, with visual and sound effects shoehorned into every nook and cranny. The football is filmed without distinction, and with some point-of-view shots I couldn’t figure out. Often I wished the bombastic orchestral score would shut up, so that some of the emotional cues would be permitted to stand or fall on their own merits.
Still, there’s plenty to admire here beyond the film’s considered approach to the material. Dennis Quaid gives a perfectly calculated performance, tough and not always appealing, but allowing us to arrive at the same conclusion Ernie Davis eventually does: this is a good man. And there’s a discovery in Omar Benson Miller as one of Davis’s classmates; he’s great, too, in Spike Lee’s mediocre Miracle at St. Anna. I briefly worried that the movie was going to get bogged down in a trite romantic subplot, but it has the wisdom to skip from the couple’s first encounter to scenes of their committed relationship. Smart choices like that are the reason why the film’s 130 minutes are so brisk.
So we didn’t need The Express; this story has been told. But what could have been a blindly reverent biopic, and/or a tediously respectable prestige picture, instead at least tries to deal with the issues it raises, and tries to do so with with some subtlety and grace. I’ll take that.