Review of The Express written by John Hancock and Charles Leavitt, directed by Gary Fleder
Rating *** 1/2
This film tells the true story of Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy. The story takes place in the late fifties and early sixties and the civil rights movement serves as a backdrop to the main story. The film is based on the book The Elmira Express by Robert Gallagher.
There have been so many sports movies of late that it's hard to avoid scenes that haven't been done a hundred times before. They all follow the same basic format of the disadvantaged athlete (or athletes) who overcome(s) great obstacles to achieve great things on the field, track, court, or rink. The filmmakers were aware of this and did everything they could to avoid cliches. One example is when Dennis Quaid, who plays coach Ben Schwartzwalder, has to fire up the team at halftime of a big game. Rather than have Dennis make the obligatory speech, the writers have him say "I don't have to tell you what you have to do so let's go out and do it," or something along those lines.
Another good decision by the filmmakers was to focus on the early successes of Earnie Davis and not what happened after he won the Heisman. I won't give anything away, but there's a reason why you may never have heard of Earnie Davis.
Despite the "been there seen that" aspect of the film, this is a compelling story that deserves to be told. The film is solid throughout with excellent performances by the actors, especially Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown who plays Earnie.
In watching a film like this it's sometimes hard to discern truth from fiction. One storyline that I didn 't by was when coach Schwartzwalder asks Jim Brown, his former player, to help recruit Earnie to Syracuse. Then later in the film Earnie is asked to help recruit his replacement, Floyd Little. Seemed contrived to me. Turns out it actually happened.
The same eye for detail in the making of the film was used in putting together the DVD extras. There is a very good "making of" video as well as some material on the real Earnie Davis along with interviews with people portrayed in the film such as Art Modell and Jim Brown. The disc also contains an excellent audio commentary by director Fleder where he talks more about decisions that were made during filming and less about the performances of individual actors.