At times stirring, inspiring and thoughtful, "The Express" tells the life story of football player Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Recruited to play at Syracuse University in part to replace legendary running back Jim Brown, Davis would help lead the team through an undefeated season in 1959 and win the national championship. Diagnosed with leukemia just after being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, he would never play a single game of professional football.
Directed by Gary Fleder, and adapted by Charles Leavitt from the book "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express" by Robert Gallagher, the film is at its best when it is ambitious in its storytelling. As Syracuse's 1959 championship season dovetails with the civil rights movement and Davis' own burgeoning social consciousness, the team is forced to confront racism at every turn -- the African American players on the team are refused entry to hotels, suffer epithets and abuse from opposing fans and players, and Davis (Rob Brown) is barred from an awards ceremony where he was named MVP -- making every win along the way seem like something bigger.
By the time of the national championship game in Texas, the film has built up to a moment in which sporting events take on larger dimensions than winning and losing. It is here that "The Express" suffers its biggest stumble, at war with itself over the conflicting conventions of the sports film and the biopic. Once the final whistle blows on the big game, the movie deflates. Stuck perhaps with feeling the need to see Davis' story through to the sad end, Fleder and his collaborators allow the energy and enthusiasm of the film's best moments to dissipate. If one will pardon the obvious analogy, "The Express" ends up feeling like a fumble at the goal line, coming across as simple-minded and melodramatic.