Lonesome Road: Bruckheimer's Folly (2006)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 1, 2006 @ Bright Lights Film Journal.

Glory Road? Make that Dead End.

The first time I knew race was more of an influence than a seven-foot center was when I went to support the Villanova basketball team in a game against West Virginia at Morgantown. I was a sports writer for the Villanova student newspaper, and in that capacity I had an acquaintance with African-American George Raveling, the captain of the team.

All-American Jerry West was the star of the Mountaineers, and he was treated royally; in fact, a carpet was unrolled before him when he led his team onto the court. During the game, when Raveling fouled West hard, the Mountaineer Nation rose as one, and a public lynching seemed very possible. Fortunately, George frantically stuck out his hand, West shook it, and the mob subsided.

Leaving the arena, the West Virginia fans confronted a few Villanova supporters and sneered, "Is Villanova an African-American school?" But they didn't say African-American. It was a raw moment.

A few years later, in 1966, Texas Western defeated Kentucky in the NCAA Championship Finals with an all African-American starting five. It was a raw moment nationally. Afterwards, Coach Don Haskins says he received reams of hate mail — thousands of letters.

Now in 2006 producer-manipulator Jerry Dreckheimer has put his smudgy, sticky fingerprints on the Texas Western story. Bruckheimer is not the kind of creative plunderer one wants to have transforming a seminal moment in sports and racial history.

Hoosiers is a great sports movie, because it has authenticity. Glory Road has Bruckheimer. One knows Bruckheimer will sacrifice truth to commercial simplicity and appeal. The question is how much he will water the story down and sweeten it up.

One scene in the TV ads for Glory Road made me very leery of what Bruckheimer was doing. A clip from the movie shows a courtside announcer saying that it was the first time an "all-black" five had started in the big game. It was something the announcer would never say; in those mean days even Martin Luther King, Jr. called his race "Negroes." It turns out that in the ad it's "black," but in the movie the same line is "Negro." The ads phony it up. It shows Bruckheimer's sensibility.

When Bruckheimer touches something, it often turns soft. For every CSI, there's a Close to Home, which — despite Jennifer Finnigan's winsomeness — is rendered terminally trite by its hokey writers. For every Pirates of the Caribbean, there's a tacky Pearl Harbor .

For every Thief — a brilliant Michael Mann film made 25 years ago — there's a Bad Boys 2. I'm sure Bruckheimer (right) is trying to figure out how to do a Pearl Harbor 2.

As a producer, Bruckheimer has given more wannabes an opportunity than anyone in Hollywood. The thing about wannabes is they seldom if ever will upstage him. By using journeyman director Richard Bay five times, he assured he would never be outshone. He probably wanted to use Bay on Glory Road, but there was nothing to blow up.

For Glory Road Bruckheimer chose James Gantner as his director; Gantner previously had only directed TV commercials. As his writers Bruckheimer chose the husband and wife team Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, whose credits are scant.

So Bruckheimer remained unchallenged. In the credits it lists four assistants for Bruckheimer. Maybe it took that many to carry his ego.

The first half of Glory Road is more Fat Albert than Hoosiers. It's often cartoonish. In a classroom at Texas Western, one of the player's mothers is sitting behind him. It's like Momma McNabb with her Campbell's soup, or maybe Martin Lawrence in drag wandered over from another set.

The actual players were recruited from Detroit, Houston, New York, and Gary, Indiana, but there's no sense of reality in the movie's treatment of the recruiting.

Josh Lucas (right) as Coach Don Haskins might sell an infomercial, but not recruit a bunch of players to El Paso. His performance is vanilla; Ben Affleck, the original choice for the role, would have been better. He does better vanilla.

It doesn't help that the writers fill Coach Hawkins' mouth with platitudes: "You quit right now, you quit every day the rest of your life."

And a lot of the dialogue they put in the players' mouths is schizophrenic; did people say "get the groove on" in the 1960s?

Two scenes are unbearably contrived. In one, a white player, who has been told he isn't going to play in the final game, stands up and delivers a completely awful cheerleader speech, as syrupy music plays. And when Don Haskins' wife Mary is rebuffed by all the women at a gathering at the Finals, the one woman who comes up to her with support is guess who? Mrs. Rupp — the Kentucky coach's wife. A sophomore shouldn't write such cornpone.

Lucas is one-dimensional as Don Haskins, but Derek Luke is effective as star guard Bobby Joe Hill, and Red West, Elvis' pal, is fine as the trainer. The best performance in Glory Road is by Jon Voight as Kentucky's fabled coach Adolph Rupp. Voigt finds the humanity in his character.

The biggest waste is the role of Mary Haskins. She is written just to applaud in the stands, be there, and look out of place. To cast Emily Deschanel (right) — who is wonderful in TV's Bones — in this thankless role is inexcusable.

The movie also fudges Haskins' career when it shouldn't; he was at Texas Western nearly five years before his championship, and there were already some African-American players there when he came. To change these facts makes no sense, other than a lame attempt at more drama.

Glory Road doesn't have any of the individual moments that humanized Hoosiers, The Rookie, and Miracle. It's a feel-good sports movie by the numbers.

So it shouldn't work. But in the latter parts of the movie the power of the event takes over. There's racism, conflict, and emotion. Even Bruckheimer can't ruin that.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is after most of the audience has left the theater. After a lot of the credits have run, on screen there are the actual participants who played a part in the momentous game: the real-life Don Haskins, David Lattin, et al., as well as Pat Riley, who played in that game for Kentucky. They talk about the real impact of the game.

Reality? That's an interesting concept. But one that seems to make Jerry Bruckheimer uncomfortable.

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