It appears that Disney is trying to corner the market in inspirational fact-based sports movies. They’ve run the gamut–doing football (“Remember the Titans”), baseball (“The Rookie”), hockey (“The Miracle”), and even golf (“The Greatest Game Every Played”). One wonders whether tiddlywinks will ever get its moment in the sun, but for now it’s basketball’s turn. “Glory Road”–can a title be more generic than that?–is the story of the little-known Texas Western team’s NCAA championship run in the mid-sixties. What makes their winning season and ultimate victory over powerhouse Kentucky more than just the normal “Hoosiers” tale of unlikely triumph is the fact that this was the first time that a school fielded mostly black players–a controversial move at a time when segregation was still alive and well and racist notions about mental inferiority remained ingrained in many, if not most, Americans. So the movie follows the familiar formula of setting a personal tale of triumph against a larger canvas of right against wrong (whether that be racist, agism, classism or even communism).
It’s a recipe that’s worked more often than not in the past (at least in terms of boxoffice receipts), and just may do so again. Certainly “Glory Road” pushes all the expected buttons with an efficiency that indicates that experienced fingers are at work. It’s been mounted by Jerry Bruckheimer with accustomed glitz and gloss; the period production design by Geoffrey Kirkland, complemented by Alix Friedberg’s costumes, is impressive; the cinematography by John Toon and Jeffrey L. Kimball bathes everything in a nostalgic glow and, in tandem with John Wright’s astute editing, gives the game footage some real excitement; and the score by Trevor Rabin doesn’t miss a trick in pumping up the emotions.
But all the technical expertise in the world doesn’t make for a good movie, and this one falls short in any number of narrative respects. The usual kinds of historical liberties have been taken, of course–which are bothersome but not fatal; this isn’t being billed as a documentary, after all. The real problem is that the picture has been constructed by scripters Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois and directed by first-timer James Gartner as a succession of Big Moments–so much so that we don’t really get much sense of character beyond the simplest stereotypes and the connections among the incidents are never persuasively drawn. The result is a picture that leaves no cliche unturned in its journey to a foreordained conclusion.
The hero of the piece is Don Haskins (an earnest, if slightly undersized Josh Lucas), who takes on the coaching job at the modestly-endowed El Paso school after leading a girls’ highschool team to a state championship. It’s hardly a job that carries much distinction, or much money; in fact, Haskins and his wife Mary (Emily Deschanel, nondescript in a woefully underwritten part) have to live in the athletic dorm, and the university president is straightforward about the fact that the coach’s main job will be to maintain discipline among the players (a job in which he’s assisted by the obligatory crusty old good-boy trainer, played without a shred of subtlety by likable Red West). But Haskins is determined to field a winning team, and recruits a bunch of African-American kids from the playgrounds of the north, attempting to instill some “regulation” ball into their more free-wheeling style. He also has to integrate them–in the fullest sense of comradeship–with the white kids on the squad.
The effort pays off, of course, in a team that begins winning after a briefly clumsy start. But they must contend with the usual melodrama along the way to the championship game against the Wildcats. There’s the kid (Mehcad Brooks) who won’t buckle down and study until his mother comes to campus and sits behind him in class. There’s another (Damaine Radcliffe) who’s benched with a heart problem, but whose mother begs the coach to give him at least a few minutes on the court. There’s the normal inclination for the players to show off rather than play as a team, or to head south of the border for a good time against coach’s orders. And, of course, there’s the resistance of university administrators and powerful team boosters to putting too many blacks on the court, and the periodic instances of overt racism, as when one player is beaten up by some rednecks when he makes the mistake of going to the restroom alone in a small-town diner.
All of these episodes may well be true, and if depicted with a degree of understatement, and with appropriate background and transitions, they could work when pieced together into a compelling narrative. But understatement is a rarity in the Bruckheimer playbook, and Cleveland and Gilois have stinted on context and character in favor of the easy lump in the throat, impulse to righteous indignation, or laugh. We never learn, for instance, anything about Haskins’ motivation–what in his history made him feel differently about the potential of African-American players than other coaches of the time? And though the script wants to praise him for instilling a sense of “standard play” in his more individualistic recruits, it also suggests that the team started winning only when he abruptly tossed out the rules and told them to play their own game. (The result is that the coach seems to be coasting along on the tide of historical necessity rather than controlling events.) As for the team members, they’re played energetically by Derek Luke, Austin Nichols, Brooks, Alphonso McAuley, Radcliff, Al Shearer, Sam Jones III, Schin A.S. Kerr, Kip Weeks, Mitch Eakins, Alejandro Hernandez and James Olivard, but the very number of them prevents our engagement with any except on the most superficial level. One does have to admire the young actors for whatever portion of the action sequences they’re actually responsible for, although the amount of doubling involved must have been considerable.
“Glory Road” doesn’t really come alive until the final act, not so much because of the championship game but because Jon Voight shows up to give a sharp if studied performance as Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach. Some will quarrel with the characterization, but Voight has a field day playing it. And he does so sporting a prosthetic nose, a honker as extravagant as the accent Voight has affected in some other movies. It’s so large that he actually has to hold his head up keep it from drooping. It’s the biggest thing in a picture that’s otherwise a few sizes too small for the story it wants to tell.