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October 11, 2008

Movie Review – The Express (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

The Express is a biopic of Ernie Davis, a college football star who played for Syracuse University in the early 1960s and became a symbol of achievement to black Americans in the civil rights era. Like its subject, the film is earnest and goodhearted. The facts of Davis’ life give The Express an unexpected weight and gravity.

The story begins with some brief establishing scenes of Davis’ childhood in Pennsylvania and New York. His athletic gifts, evident from childhood, earned him a scholarship at Syracuse. Davis (played as an adult by Rob Brown) was recruited by head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) with the invaluable assistance of Jim Brown, the team’s preceding star player and a hero to Davis.

Most of the running time is devoted to Davis’ college football career, when his speed and skill gained him the nickname “the express” and culminated in his winning of the Heisman Trophy. This part of the story is presented in the guise of a familiar– but not the less potent for its familiarity– inspirational sports drama. Nevertheless, despite outward appearances the film at its core is a biopic concerned with Davis’ on the field performance as expressive of his strength of character and developing social consciousness. Further to that end, the film also continues beyond the “big game” to tell Davis’ life in the year after his college graduation.

Davis lived under segregation when the team played away games and at home, under the less overt expressions of Northern discrimination. His exceptional achievements on a racially integrated team made him a target of vicious hate-mongering when the team traveled south, exemplified by a game in West Virginia where the crowd hurled invective and glass bottles at the field and a bowl game in Texas that brought hate mail threatening lynching for Davis and the other black players. Conversely, his exceptional record made him a source of pride and inspiration in the larger black community. Fame brought with it expectations of social activism. A young man of Davis’ age, catapulted to national prominence solely because of athletic ability, might understandably have received those expectations as an unwelcome burden. The film celebrates his embrace of fame as an opportunity to be an agent of change.

The film sketches in Davis’ relationships with some of the people who were important influences in his life: grandfather; childhood friend; mother; girlfriend; a teammate and friend; Jim Brown. However, in keeping with the film’s focus on his time playing college ball, the relationship explored in the most depth is that between Davis and Coach Schwartzwalder. The film uses the relationship as a vehicle to sensitively explore the moral costs of acquiescence in the status quo and the rewards of defiance. Schwartzwalder wants only two things, to win games and not make any waves off the field. Talented, hard-working, responsible, and a good team player, Davis is the coach’s ideal player on and off the field in all respects except his refusal to ignore the fact that when he scores a touchdown, it means more than points on the scoreboard. As Davis challenges his coach to stand up with him for change, the teacher-pupil relationship is subtly reversed.

Despite the fact that much of the film plays out on the field, it is not at all necessary to love football to enjoy The Express. I am almost totally ignorant about football, its history, the great players (everything I’ve written about Davis’ life in this review is from the film), and even the rules. Watching the game on TV bores me stiff. The filmmakers either share my opinion, or made the film with viewers like me in mind. The visual style of the game scenes takes a page out of the Any Given Sunday playbook of swooping camerawork, rapid editing, and rapidly shifting points of view to create excitement. (The visual style of the rest of the film is more sedate.) The strategy is reasonably effective. Even more to the point is the focus on drawing connections between the play and the drama that surrounds it. The film’s strengths are its story, its performances, and the inspirational value of the life it celebrates.

3 stars

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