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Movie Review: The Express

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The Express is the story of Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis was actually given the moniker of "The Elmira Express" since he was from Elmira, New York. Though based on a true story, the fact that the film's title has been modified to make it more marketable is indicative of the type of glossy Hollywood sports movie Davis' story has been turned into. The movie is a paint-by-numbers translation of that Hollywood standard, the "young athlete with loads of promise who meets a tragic end" — with a small measure of race politics thrown in. All of its potential edginess has been glossed over in favor of rousing action on the gridiron, and the movie suffers for it.

Beginning with Davis as a stuttering youth (Justin Martin), growing up in a small coal town outside of Pittsburgh with his grandfather, Pops (Charles Dutton), he moves to Elmira with his mother, where he joins a small-fry football league. Eventually he is actively being sought after by 50 colleges, no small feat for a black man in 1959. But it isn't until coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) and football legend Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) come calling that he decides to join their team, the Syracuse Orangemen. As a sophomore, Davis leads the team to an undefeated season and a win over the #2 ranked Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl. Despite facing racism at nearly every point in his life, he eventually becomes the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy and goes on to play for the Cleveland Browns. His career is cut short, before he ever plays one game for the NFL, when he develops leukemia in 1962.

The ExpressThe movie falls prey to the usual downer sports movie touches that have become cliche over time. It's not enough that Davis will meet a tragic end. The viewer's sympathies are immediately manipulated by making the child Davis a stutterer, only for the stammer to disappear once we leave him as a youth. The film cuts to his grandfather's funeral briefly, in the midst of his rapid rise to stardom in college and all the hoopla surrounding it. But is there any emotion attached to the event? When Davis is informed of Pops' death, the camera takes it in from afar, cutting us out from what must be a weighty moment in the athlete's life. We get early hints that Davis is headed for some bad news, in brief scenes where he suffers mysterious nosebleeds. But after a lengthy time spent establishing his astounding career in college (close to 20 minutes on the Cotton Bowl game alone), the discovery of his leukemia, and his response to it, are rushed. We never get an idea of how he coped with his short life after. Even the classic TV movie Brian's Song treated a similar storyline with much more respect, making the tragedy, and its emotional fallout, the centerpiece of its film.

Race politics are included as another in a long line of obstacles for Davis to overcome, but the method in which it is addressed is also typical for Hollywood. Much of this subplot focuses on Davis teaching a white man, Schwartzwalder, why it is wrong to stay quiet when faced with even the subtle racism of the day. We get an appreciation of what this white man learns, and how he becomes a better man for it. As for Davis, we see him attain near-mythic status as the young player who overcame a stammer, Pops' death, nosebleeds, and racism on and off the field to eventually be honored as the best college football player of 1961. Outside of a small obligatory scene where he speaks of it to his cousin, we never get a true sense of how difficult it must have been to face the pressure of having such a symbolic role thrust upon him. I would have been interested in seeing Davis' interactions with Jim Brown, a well-known activist, who similarly had run-ins with the coach over institutionalized racism.

The film is strongest when it's on the field. All the play action is shot tightly, and easier to follow than you might think due to some deft editing and cinematography. With such a dearth of football movies, it is worth watching if just for that. But unless you're a diehard football fanatic, you might want to consider waiting for The Express on video.

The Express opens on October 10 in theaters across the country.

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About Tony Dayoub

  • Larry, ‘Cuse ’87

    Mr. Dayoub says “The viewer’s sympathies are immediately manipulated by making the child Davis a stutterer, only for the stammer to disappear once we leave him as a youth.”

    If Mr. Dayoub had done 2 minutes of research, he would have learned that Ernie WAS a stutterer, a severe handicap that impacted how he socialized, and how he saw/read other people. One has only to read to page 18 of “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express” by Robert Gallagher, the book upon which the movie is based, for the first reference to this disability. And yes Mr. Dayoub, it was conquered in early adulthood thanks to Ernie’s hard work and perseverance. No sir, not a manipulation, but a quite factual example of the man’s (boy’s?) substance, the fight he took to all the challenges in his life.

    As for a glossed over depiction of Ernie’s life…well, if you got the detail of Ernie’s stuttering wrong, Mr. Dayoub, who’s to say that rest of your review isn’t flawed? By all accounts, Ernie led a blessed life, changing those around him in life altering ways. Next time, if you can’t take the time to do a bit of research if you are going to attack a plot line, don’t bother doing the review.

  • http://www.cinemaviewfinder.com Tony Dayoub

    Mr. Cuse,

    I don’t dispute that Mr. Davis’ story is an inspiring one. It is all the moreso because of the challenges he had to overcome, including the disability.

    My point is that the movie takes shortcuts by simply introducing this disability as a means of getting the viewer’s sympathies, and then forgets it conveniently without showing us Davis’ hard work in overcoming it.

    I for one, would have liked the film to take the same time in explaining it as the wonderful book does. It is these nuances that elevate a man’s life story beyond being merely cliche. I think the movie did Davis a disservice by glossing over these trying times in his life.

    What was your opinion of the film as compared to the book?

  • Larry, ‘Cuse ’87

    Honestly, it’s very hard to compare the two. While I enjoyed the book immensely, it was more for the nuance and texture that you mention than writing style or prose. I would call the book “wonderful” on substance, not so much style.

    As for the movie, I came in with the maxim in mind “the book is always better than the movie.” (pretty cliched, even for an amateur critic). But it really wasn’t hard for Fleder and Leavitt to liven up Gallagher’s book for the big screen, for me at least. Sure, there were corners cut and sympathies played, but that’s pretty much what you get when you cram a man’s life into a couple hour “docu-drama.”

    One last point. You make the comparison to Brian’s Song, saying that film did a better job making Brian’s death the centerpiece of the film. But really…is that The Express’ intention? To make Ernie’s death the centerpiece, or his life? Ernie’s story really isn’t about the leukemia, but what came before. We’re left to wonder what could have been, without dwelling on how the door closed.

    One (biased Orange) man’s opinion…

  • http://www.cinemaviewfinder.com Tony Dayoub

    Well, as a critic, I feel that a movie must be judged on its own merits. You have the benefit of having read the book to help you fill in the blanks. But I’m also reviewing the film for many others who didn’t read it.

    Besides who says you have to “cram a man’s life into a couple hour ‘docudrama'”? Michael Corleone was a fictional character and he got more than 9 hours.

  • Larry, ‘Cuse ’87

    True enough on Mr. Corleone (I feel hesitant to question a thinly veiled reference to horse heads made by a guy named Tony. A Hurricane, no less).

    I just hope people will take the opportunity to learn a little more about Ernie. We in the Syracuse community have waited a long, long time for this story to be told.

  • John M. Murphy II

    Thanks to Mr. Robert Gallagher, those of us who grew up in Elmira and played football, will finally get the feeling of being reunited with an old friend. I visited Elmira (home) a couple of years ago for a funeral at Woodlawn, where Mr. Davis is buried and I took the time to walk my, then 9 year old son over to visit his grave. I explained to my son who Ernie Davis was and why his story was important. When the ads started to appear on tv for the movie, my son remembered what I had told him a couple of years before. Needless to say, we will be watching the movie this evening. Thanks to Mr. Gallagher for writing the book and thanks to all for making the movie.

  • justin

    This movie was terrible. Marshall seems to better to watch again.

  • Katlin

    This movie is a point to all of the people who are rasis

  • Harvey baum

    I went to Syracuse Univ shortly after ED left and I found the movie highly offensive to the truth- e.g. there was little hostility from the students on campus shown in the movie – and ENIRE DAVE NEVER PLAYED DEFENSE!

  • SANDRA

    I REALLY ENJOY THE MOVIE ABOUT ERNIE DAVIES I CRY MY SON IS A FOOTBALL PLAYER HAS WATCH IT AT SCHOOL SOMEONE THEY HAS NEVER HEARD ABOUT IN THEIR 17 YEARS . I AM 57 AND A FOOTBALL FAN I GROW UP IN THOSE TIMES OF JIM CROW AND AN AA SO ALL OF THE RACISM IS TRUE AND STILL IS TRUE IN 2009.HIS SHORT TIME ON THIS EARTH WAS A BLESSING HE BROUGHT A LOT OF JOY TO A LOT OF PEOPLE HE WAS LOVED AND STILL IS TO THIS DAY HE WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN.

  • Andrew

    Harvey,

    They played iron man football in those days. Ernie Davis really played defense.

  • nicholas nathan

    i loved the movie and think it was as good if not better than remember the titans and dennis quade is a great actor