You can keep your Mafia dons, your corrupt cops, your femme fatales, and your World War II sharpshooters. For my money, there’s no juicier role out there for an actor than the football coach. Those lucky enough to stumble into such a casting opportunity will be given free rein to be loud and demanding and ornery; possibly racist, sexist, and violent; even borderline sociopathic. Viewers don’t just forgive irascibility and barking dyspepsia in their movie coaches; they expect it. So playing one is a chance for an otherwise well-hinged star to really let lose and indulge his inner Archie Bunker. Take Dennis Quaid, who has made a living out of flashing a 100-kilowatt smile, but even he couldn’t resist the plum role of Ben Schwartzwalder, the decidedly uncharming (but impeccably named) head coach at Syracuse University from 1949 to '73. These were years that saw the team go from a garden-variety great-white-hope manufacturer to the home of African-American superstar Jim Brown (who would go on to become arguably the best football player of all time, one of the great social agitators in sports history, and an actor of incomparable gruffness) and the coming-out ground of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner, who made a habit of breaking down racial barriers and defensive backfields before his untimely death from leukemia at the age of 23. Davis’ story is the subject of Fleder’s new film, The Express
, and it’s a doozy, full of the kind of last-minute, heart-pumping stadium heroics and quiet acts of dignity we demand from our football films, mixed with heartbreaking historical incidents of violent racism that give viewers the chance to recoil in horror and indignation while resting uneasily in the hope that all that’s behind us now. (I feel it’s my responsibility, at this point, to warn local readers that the University of Texas comes off downright villainous in this movie; Longhorn fans everywhere should prepare themselves for the worst.) Though The Express
may stretch the limits of probability, holding up Davis as an athletic superman incapable of losing, it’s also that rare sports film that isn’t afraid to dabble in personal and social ambiguity. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to lavish in the rumpled, distempered glory of Quaid’s Schwartzwalder, who grows from mere coach to symbol of early-1960s white America in only a few short years, a stubborn soul in a fedora and NASA-issued horn-rimmed glasses waking up slowly to the realities and possibilities of a bold new day.