As of this writing, America is a few hours away from swearing in its first African American President. Coincidentally, this occurs 50 years after a quiet, soft-spoken African American kid from central New York named Ernie Davis would start his college football career at Syracuse University and lead the Orangemen to the National Championship. Davis was a highly touted college prospect who followed in the steps of Jim Brown, an All-American who was just drafted by the Cleveland Browns. While Davis' entry into college athletics might have been slightly anonymous, it's what he did during his time at the school that remains his legacy.
The Express was adapted from the Robert Gallagher book by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls). Davis is played by Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) as an adult, but we see Davis' roots in Pennsylvania raised by his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton, Roc). His mother returned home to take Ernie to New York, where Brown and his college coach Ben Schwartwalder (Dennis Quaid, The Rookie) go to recruit the youngster. While his presence as on the varsity team causes some friction, his teammates eventually accept him. Ernie experiences both racial acceptance at home, but also deals with the racial elements as well. A road game at West Virginia University finds Ernie and some of his black teammates the target of thrown bottles and other objects. During the team's eventual National Championship in 1959, their Cotton Bowl game against Texas was marred by Davis being barred from the hotel for his color, and not being allowed to the postgame ceremony where he was to be awarded the games Most Valuable Player award. Despite these obstacles, he was named the Heisman Trophy winner for outstanding college player, the first African American to receive the award. He was drafted by the Washington Redskins, who subsequently traded him to Cleveland. Sadly though, Davis would never see the pro field with his friend Jim Brown. He was diagnosed with leukemia, and passed away at the age of 23.
In the past, Fleder has directed some emotionally riveting work, and more recently has focused his efforts on television, producing the ABC Family Drama October Road, and with Dutton, Quaid and Brown, he's got the horses in place to tug on your heartstrings. Brown, who's responsible for most of the heavy lifting in the film, avails himself rather well in a slightly understated and soft-spoken performance. Quaid provides stern guidance and mentorship of Brown, and the cast is filled in by Fleder's October Road cast members Geoff Stults (who plays Bob Lundy) and Evan Jones (who plays "Hound Dog" Davis). The cast turns in an admirable collective effort in general.
That said, it's admirable yet not entirely successful. The emotion of the material is conducted with a heavy hand by Fleder. At two hours and ten minutes, Fleder tries to bury you behind a wall of tears and expecting you to bawl. And while I'm slightly familiar with Davis' life, I didn't feel completely knocked over by anything that transpired. In reading some additional material on the historical liberties that were taken by Fleder to the point where some a member of the team apologized to the people of West Virginia for the crowd sequences that were "fictitious." If they paid a little more loyalty to the source material, maybe the storytelling wouldn't seem a little holier than thou at times. Despite my objections, the story of Ernie Davis deserves to be delivered to a wider audience, and if this is the shortest, most direct way to tell the story, so be it.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 2.40:1 1080p widescreen using the VC-1 codec, The Express employs a couple of different visual styles during the film. Some sequences are stock newsreel footage, and some scenes were shot on 16mm, similar to JFK, which Fleder cites as one of his influences. There was appears to have been some color timing done on the feature in post-production as well, as the result is slightly rustic in appearance. The orange of the helmets tends to stand out vibrantly, not to mention the reds in some blood that you see on screen. You see a lot of background detail in the autumn of New York, and the wider exteriors (and some football scenes) have a strong multi-dimensional look to them. The detail in things like the uniform stitching and in tight facial shots is excellent, but it tends to waver occasionally. Minor gripes aside, The Express looks outstanding.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track sure is worth your while. Dialogue is strongly in the center channel without fading or balance issues. Directional effects are well-placed and effective, and speaker panning is smooth without any distortion. Pick any of the football sequences, and you're going to get immersion from all channels, a nice punch from the low end and excellent dynamics for a sports movie. During the West Virginia game, which occurs during a downpour, throw in the environmental affects and you've got some potentially demo-worthy sequences. I really enjoyed how The Express sounded on Blu-ray.
Fleder provides a commentary for the film that was far more active than I was expecting. Go ahead, take your pick on any production aspect; sound design, editing, score, you name it. He talks about issues surrounding the writing and how previous drafts turned out, and how he approached them. Casting choices and challenges are covered, and he talks about some criticisms with the historical accuracy of some scenes, though appears to shy away from others. Whether you liked the film or not, Fleder touches on a lot of balls that have to be juggled while handling a feature, and it's worth checking out. Three deleted scenes (7:37) with optional commentary follow, and there's some additional exposition to Davis' treatment from friends and teammates early on, but the film proves them to be unnecessary. Next up is an exclusive feature to the Blu-ray, a retrospective on the National Championship with interviews from eight former players (16:23). They talk about the team and Schwartwalder, and what they thought separated them from the pack that year. It also includes archived interviews, and covers some games from the season. It's a nice, brief inclusion to the disc. The film's making of look (13:57) discusses the allure of the material for the cast and crew, their thoughts of Fleder and the challenges in getting the actors ready and in football shape. "Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis (13:18) includes thoughts by Brown, SU alumnus (and classmate) Dick Stockton and a host of other people as they recall Davis' time on this mortal coil. "Inside the Playbook" (7:00) examines the plays in the game with a commentary by Fleder and the film's technical advisor. Chalk breakdowns and looking at various angles of each football scene abound, and Fleder asks about what it took to make them authentic. "From Hollywood to Syracuse" (5:17) includes more alumni recollections and students who appeared as extras on campus talk about how cool it was. The BD-Live content allows you to bookmark clips and send them, but that's about the extent of it.
While the story of Ernie Davis is compelling, The Express doesn't feel like it captures it quite as it should. Fleder has a tendency to dry to drill the emotion home to the viewer with the subtlety of a jackhammer, and the dramatic liberties taken to tell a conventional story feel a little insulting. The performances are solid, but where the disc shines is in the technical side of things, with top notch audio and video presentations, which helps make up for supplements that feel a little barren. I'd definitely recommend that everyone give this a spin and check out the life of Ernie Davis, whom on says is "the greatest person I have ever known - period."