The Express is almost exactly what you’d expect from the inspirational-sports film genre, similar to most of the inspired-by-true-events sports stories you get around this time of the year, before the holidays usher in the real tear-jerkers. On most days, I’d be inclined to write that it’s a cheesy, hokum-filled paint-by-numbers affair, mostly predictable if you don’t know the story of Ernie Davis already, and completely predictable if you do. But I’m not in a cynical mood today, and as a famous movie critic should’ve said at some point, 50 percent of film criticism depends on which side of the bed you wake up (I’d argue it’s only 20 percent, but I don’t see much use in quibbling with a fictional critic).
The truth is, I feel like cutting The Express some slack today. Not because it’s an outstanding movie that drew its audience to its feet, because it’s not. But because it’s not a bad movie, either, and because I got to thinking somewhere around the three-quarters mark, that were it not for movies like The Express, no one under the age of 40 would ever know about the lives of people like Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. And no, it’s not the Nobel Prize. Or the majority of the electorate in a predominantly white location. But in 1962, winning the Heisman meant more than you can imagine.
A few weeks ago, we ran a comment diversion here on Pajiba, addressing issues of race, in response to a quote from will.i.am, who said that for people under the age of 40, racism doesn’t even exist anymore. The Eloquents quickly and fairly put that myth to rest, and for good reason. But, I do think we can all agree there’s been considerable advancement, more in some places than others. And the fact that the next President of the United States has a better chance than not in being an African-American is a testament to that progress. Yet, I do feel that, were it not for movies like The Express, people under a certain age wouldn’t appreciate how hard it once was for African-Americans in this country, how much hard work it took to get us to this point. My only issue with the Disneyfied approach to these stories, however, is that the younger generation may also get the idea that African-Americans combated racism with big smiles and Motown songs. I do wish filmmakers didn’t see fit to sugarcoat the ugliness with “My Girl.” But then again, if sugarcoating is what it takes to make these stories commercially viable, then I suppose we’ll take what we can get.
Because, honestly, there aren’t that many inspirational figures left in our country. Sure, we’ve got Barack Obama, but even he’s got some of the stink of politician stuck to him. Lance Armstrong courageously defeated cancer and won a string of Tours de France (though, he also left his wife) and Tiger Woods, I suppose, could be considered an inspiration to some, or at least those who don’t think he’s a dick. Hillary Clinton? Sure. I guess. (Mini-diversion: Who is the most genuinely inspirational figure in America today?). It’s because of that dearth of inspirational figures, I’d argue, that we need to borrow them from decades past, even if it does mean reducing their lives to a Hollywood formula.
Anyway, those were the thoughts swirling around my tiny brain as I walked out of the theater satisfied enough with what I’d just witnessed. I was appreciative because I’d been told about the life of a man I’d never heard of, and his life story was compelling enough to make me want to know more. And what I learned was that The Express didn’t take a lot of liberties to get its point across. It didn’t have to. Because Ernie Davis’ life was a compelling one. Davis was raised in Pennsylvania by his grandparents; he moved to Elmira, NY with his mom when he was 12. And he learned to run because it was easier than standing around and letting white kids beat him senseless. That ability to run translated onto the football field, and he was ultimately recruited by Syracuse University to play running back, replacing their star running back, Jim Brown, arguably the best running back in college at the time, but not appreciated for it because he was black.
At SU, Davis butted heads with his coach, Hall of Famer Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), because Schwartzwalder - as good a coach as he was - also had a racist streak, as did the majority of the campus. And as you might expect for a movie of this ilk, coach and player learned from each other, and they both succeeded as a team and as individuals because of it. Hearts are warmed all around.
I also appreciated that, though there was certainly a great deal of Hollywood in the production of The Express, they stuck to the narrative, even if it did mean the climactic scenes weren’t saved for the final minutes. Life so rarely hews closely to stock formulas. Dennis Quaid is solid, as is Charles Durning as Davis’ grandfather, and Rob Brown, who plays Davis, is serviceable. The director, Gary Fleder — working from a script based on Robert Gallagher’s biography, The Elmira Express — appropriately stands back and lets the story do all the work. And it really is a great story, folks. And though the movie only barely rises above mediocrity, my only real misgiving with it is the way it reminds me that there are so few people like Ernie Davis remaining in this nation. But I am nevertheless strangely thankful that these old stories, hackneyed and clichéd though they may be, are recycled for new generations that can appreciate them.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives withi his wife and son in Portland, Maine You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.Gracefully Hallmarkian
The Express / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 10, 2008 | Comments ()