Starring: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Omar Benson Miller, Nelsan Ellis. Rated PG.
me if I approached The Express with something less than breathless enthusiasm.
The age of inspirational (and, some might argue,
interchangeable) sports dramas has produced, among others, the stories of the
first all-black starting five to win the NCAA basketball championship (Glory
Road) and a coach who famously benched his
entire squad for getting bad grades (Coach Carter). Next up: Former Syracuse
running back and two-time
All-American Ernie Davis, whose groundbreaking collegiate career began the
season after his predecessor, Jim Brown, signed with the Cleveland Browns.
As you may know, thanks to an aggressive promotional
campaign that leaves little to the imagination, Davis became the first African
American to win college football’s Heisman Trophy in 1961. Two years later he
succumbed to leukemia at the age of 23, before he had the chance to play his
first pro game for, coincidentally, the Browns.
Nicknamed the “Elmira Express” as a high-school star
in upstate New York, Davis enjoyed an increasingly tight relationship with his
coach at Syracuse, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), and it is their
unexpected friendship, as much as their success on the field, that lends the
movie emotional resonance. Director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) includes plenty of
action from the team’s undefeated 1959 season, two years before Davis earned
his historic trophy. But more moving than the inevitable outcome of the Big
Game is the way Davis connects with his initially distant mentor.
During a time when many universities did not offer
scholarships to black athletes, Davis (Rob Brown, of Finding Forrester) received more
than 50 such offers, including one
from football powerhouse Notre Dame. Schwartzwalder vowed to improve Davis’s
game at Syracuse, and he delivered. In doing so, he came to consider Davis as
much a friend as a star student, prompting a fundamental shift in his attitude
Fleder and Quaid handle the transition with admirable
subtlety; Schwartzwalder at first comes across as a tough-talking taskmaster,
but beneath his gruff posturing is a genuine tenderness. He is a decent man,
and his friendship with Davis makes him moreso. He is powerless to shield his
players from the indignities they experience on the road, as when fans at the
Cotton Bowl in Dallas shower Davis with bottles and trash. But he does his best
to prepare them, and remains unwavering in his support of an integrated team at
a time when the very concept was still controversial.
There is triumph and tragedy in The Express, and though Brown
portrays Davis as an endearingly
self-assured hero with a sharp sense of humor, Fleder wisely resists the
temptation to close his story on a note of maudlin sentimentality. The director
rarely deviates from the genre playbook, but just because something has been
done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and well. The
Express is formula-driven entertainment of
an uncommonly high order, competently crafted and quietly affecting.