Unfortunately, we were all way too optimistic. The film opened in sixth place with $4.7 million. It averaged $1,685 per screen (which is the kind of number you usually see on Week 3 or 4). It finished behind three movies that were already out, one of which was playing on less screens. By all accounts, that's the definition of box office disappointment. Not a good feeling.
Clearly, the rest of the country was not interested in the story of Ernie Davis. Least not this version of it. Did the negative reaction to the fake West Virginia game make people think this was more fiction than fact? Were their enough negative reviews to keep audiences away? Did the feeling like we've seen this before (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, We Are Marshall) keep people from attending? Maybe it was the lack of starpower. Maybe it was the regional appeal of the story.
Don't cry for the filmmakers, they'll make their money on DVD and ancillary markets. But for Ernie, well, he certainly deserved better. It certainly wasn't my fault the film did so poorly, I attended a showing on Friday. It's tough for me to react to the film in one fell swoop so I'll do my best to speak from the Syracuse fan in me as well as from the screenwriter inside. Somewhere in the middle I'm sure the twain shall meet:
There's something about seeing a movie in which the topic and/or location is relatable to your own experiences. For Syracuse football fans, you couldn't do much better than a movie about Ernie Davis. And if all The Express accomplished was to make Syracuse folks feel good about what was and what can be again, then it accomplished that in spades.
I had the luxury of seeing the film with an audience that was 75% Syracuse fans. Believe me, it makes a difference. When the first shots of Syracuse's campus pop on screen, most audiences probably barely notice it, or wonder if the Hall of Languages is just a building on the Universal backlot. But for those of us who have walked those sidewalks and spent time in and out of those buildings, it gives you the chills to see it all captured on the cinema screen.
As for Ernie himself, while the film really only scratches the surface on his early life, it's nice for those of us who were not alive then to get to know him, even briefly. His early meeting with Jim Brown, even though it didn't actually happen that way, is the SU equivalent of seeing Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro together in Heat (but not Righteous Kill)...two of the all-time greats together at last.
As an SU fan and a lacrosse player, I do have to take extreme issue with one part of that scene. The actor who played Jim Brown, besides not being particularly good, is exceptionally terrible in this scene. Why does Brown, arguably the best lacrosse player to ever live, look like this is the first time he's ever picked up a lacrosse stick before? Ernie Davis looks more comfortable with the stick than Jim does.
That scene also underlines the one major problem in the first act. The dialogue. It's bad. Really bad. No one is an actual human being, they're all just characters spouting exposition. "Show, don't tell" is one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting and it was trampled on early on. The lacrosse scene in particular is awkward as the two of them trade dialogue no two people who actually say. Thankfully, this issue seems to go away soon after.
Anyway, Ernie is convinced SU is the place for him and he arrives. Taking stock of the school's history in the trophy room, we learn one very important thing. Syracuse keeps a trophy case with photos and lists of all of the Heisman Trophy winners, even though none of them actually attended SU. Weird.
Possibly the best surprise of the whole film? Dennis Quaid. I'm never a huge fan of him. In most of his films, his range consists of Angry Dennis Quaid, Somber Dennis Quaid, Quizzical Dennis Quaid and Coy Dennis Quaid. But here, he actually gets into character and becomes Ben Schwartzwalder. Now, I don't know much about the way Schwartzwalder really was. But I can imagine him just the way Quaid played it. He embodied the era, the style and the demeanor, even if he didn't 100% embody the coach.
I think if I have any large issue with the movie as a Syracuse fan, it probably is the West Virginia scene. Knowing that it didn't actually happen, it makes me wonder what Ernie Davis would have thought if he knew the scene existed in the movie about his life. Everything we know about Ernie is that he was a virtuous, honest and fair man. And if he knew that there was a huge scene in the film that depicted a large group of people as hatemonger racists and none of it was true, I think Ernie would be ashamed and apologetic.
Knowing that Jim Brown had a heavy hand in the script made me wonder about all that scene, and the grand arc of racial intolerance throughout the film. Brown is a passionate advocate of civil rights and I imagine he went through some unimaginable times while at SU, many of them like the West Virginia scene. But with the knowledge that that entire scene is fabricated, I just wonder how much of The Express speaks to Ernie Davis' life and how much of it speaks to Jim Brown's agenda.
All of that said, as a Syracuse football fan this film was manna. Tons of footage of Syracuse football dominating. So many images of how the program, the fans and the old stadium were. Watching Syracuse triumph in the Cotton Bowl against Texas was thrilling. Yes, because of the events involved and Ernie's perseverance. But also...it was just so God damn exciting to see Syracuse football be presented as such a vital program. Even if it was a movie, it was a thrill to watch a competitive Syracuse football team. A reminder of how things should be.
I couldn't help but get swept up in the excitement of the big game and Ernie's rise, fall and rise once again. The only shame of it was that since there was so much emphasis on that, we don't get a chance to see Ernie in action during his junior and senior years. But it's handled well and the point is made that Ernie continued to be an amazing running back.
From there, the tragedy of Ernie's illness takes center stage and Ernie begins to take toll of his life. The film paints a different image than I was expecting. In reading about him and how he was with people, my impression has always been that Ernie was content with his situation. I am sure, as a human being, he was scared and worried about the future, but I wonder how much of what we saw on the film was real and how much was added for dramatic effect.
If I were to tell you that I didn't get a little misty in the end, I would be a liar. Alright, I got a lot misty. But my wife cried more, so, I'm still cool, right? The last scene was handled perfectly...the speeches weren't corny at all and the acting was spot on (again...well done Quaid). I'm sure it didn't actually happen that way, but, the spirit of the moment was right.
The biggest cheer in the theater? When Floyd Little is introduced. Of course, he was actually in the theater at the time so that may have had something to do with it. I would say that you don't want to be That Guy who wears a #44 jersey to see The Express but I guess when you actually are one of the people who wore #44 for SU, it's allowed.
Best line of the movie? (I'm paraphrasing)
Texas lineman: How can you call yourself a good White Christian blocking for a negro?
SU lineman: I'm Jewish.
Charles S. Dutton does great Charles S. Dutton things as always as Ernie's grandfather. If only we had a little more of him.
All in all, I can see why the film wouldn't appeal to those outside of the Syracuse and Elmira communities. Unfortunately, Ernie Davis' story is a regional one and not one that jumps off the page like Ernie's hero Jackie Robinson, or even Jim Brown's. Maybe the film will find an audience on DVD and the word will spread further. Maybe some people will pick up the book to get to know the details the film skims over. It paints with a broad stroke at times, and it's tough to tell when it's being true to Ernie and when it's trying to push another agenda, but for the most part The Express touches the right emotional nerves once it gets going and it will be cherished by Syracuse fans and those who know what Ernie Davis truly stood for.
The Syracuse Fan in me says...A-
The Screenwriter in me says...B-