Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Film Review #174: The Express
Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Ron Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton

As everyone around here in upstate New York knows – or will once The Express has had its world premiere this weekend at Syracuse’s spruced-up downtown Landmark Theater – Ernie Davis was the Orange’s halfback when Syracuse University won the US national football championship in 1959. In 1961 he became the first African American, and only Orangeman, to win US college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy; in the movie, President Kennedy meets him backstage – compressed from the actual cross-town cab trip that occurred in real life – for personal congratulations. By late 1963, both were dead, Davis from leukemia and, six months later, JFK assassinated.

Director Gary Fleder filmed some of The Express on Syracuse University’s campus last year, so interest has been high locally, stoked again by the presence this weekend of cast members, 49 of the surviving 54 members of the 1959 football team, some Davis family and football greats Jim Brown and Floyd Little, whose SU careers bracketed Davis’. On-screen, there’s Hendricks Chapel and the Maxwell School of Citizenship, though you can see the newer Maxwell II discreetly beyond some foliage. The arched entrance to the old Archbold Stadium, rather grander than I remember it, digitally replaces the Carrier Dome. The Quonset hut that housed the early WAER-FM radio station on the quad back then is nowhere in sight. If you know the campus or the story, you see early that Fleder’s film does some compressing and re-arranging and, on the Friday afternoon before the premier, standing on the rain-soaked quad, he stressed the film’s not a documentary.

But don’t settle in for network TV-grade nostalgia. More important forms of authenticity in this uncommonly good film are pitch-perfect. Early on, facing a menacingly inhospitable crowd before the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Texas, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) recalls his younger self outside Pittsburgh, facing a gang of pint-sized white toughs on some isolated railroad tracks while collecting bottles. His burlap sack of empties tucked under one arm, dodging and leaping over thugs and through underbrush, the 12-year-old outruns them. The urgency of this first pursuit indelibly colors all that follow on football fields, where skirmishes and games alike are more often systematic muggings of the few Black players than gentlemanly sport.

The Express looks beyond the numbers to show “tradition” as what’s handed down to talented youngsters. Not a football fan myself, I couldn’t rattle off an admired player’s stats the way star-struck Ernie Davis rattles off Jim Brown’s record when coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) enlists the NFL pro and former Orangeman to recruit the high school player. A few years later, young Floyd Little recites Davis’ stats in the same ritual greeting when he meets Davis, who comes to him on a similar errand. In town for the premiere, Little recalled, “Ernie told me, ‘Jim Brown chose me and I’m choosing you.’ Listen, I had 47 scholarships to college. I was recruited by General MacArthur. Ernie told me, ‘Floyd, I will have your back.’”

There were hints at the pre-premiere festivities that the marketing plan for The Express might not stress this point, but in a lesser film, Schwartzwalder’s and Davis’ complicated, difficult relationship might overshadow the web of care among these men that also includes a substantial portrait of Davis’ grandfather (a wonderful Charles S. Dutton). Davis asks the old man, who introduced him to Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson via store-window TV, to help him decide about SU. With the mildest glance and smile, Grandfather asks Jim Brown over pie, “Tell me, how is it there – for men like us?”

How it is, is the way sport on film actually happens rarely – both the sheer melee and then starkly isolated elements of labored breathing, spinning ball, crunching bodies. Scorsese set the standard for this wincing, inside immediacy with Raging Bull (1980). More recently the wheelchair rugby documentary Murderball (2005) came close. Fleder got Allan Graf to wrangle the football scenes, as Graf did – variously credited as “stunt coordinator,” “second unit director” and “assistant director” – for Friday Night Lights (2004), Any Given Sunday (1999) and Jerry Maguire (1996). On Friday, Graf said he’d really used Ben Schwartzwalder’s play-books and added, “I had to teach all my football players to block with their shoulders and not with their heads like they would today.” And despite a few missteps into distracting orchestral sweep, Mark Isham’s score – by turns syncopated and bluesy – mostly supports both the mood and action on-screen superbly.

Finally, The Express is a detailed, keenly observed story about racism on mid-century US college campuses just as the US Civil Rights movement was heating up – not generically, but right here. It’s sobering to consider that Syracuse University has embraced this in which its own university community does not get a pass. It’s one thing to watch Denzel Washington’s recent The Great Debaters – criminally neglected by Oscar and box-office alike – which is longer ago and farther away (1935, Texas), another to watch Davis and his friend Jack Buckley (probably based on teammate John Brown and played by Omar Benson Miller) stroll by the Maxwell School’s statue of “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, discussing enforced dating norms circa 1960.

Shortly after, Davis and Buckley meet two young women. One, a Cornell student, asks what they’re studying. A shy, polite young man who sometimes helped players up after they tackled him, Davis first answers vaguely. Then he says, “Look, we’re on the football team. I don’t want you to think we’re not serious.” Last week, right before the film’s advance screening, some of today’s Orangemen loomed above me in the popcorn line, reminding me of how my younger brother shot up one winter so I had to bend my head back to look at him. One waved me to the head of the line with a flourish. Yes, they said – suddenly shy and polite – they were excited to see this movie. If we look past the numbers – as everyone around here knows, these last several seasons have not exactly reflected the Orange's glory days – we might remember, with an unexpected splash of grace from Davis, that these young men are serious too.

Slated for wide release in the US on October 10th, The Express opens in Mexico on October 31st and in the U.K. on November 11th. A shorter version of this review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/11/08.