A Reel View: Glory Road

A Reel View
Glory Road

Sports movies, with all the requisite cliches attached, are a dime a dozen, and no one has done them better in recent years than Disney. With every year, the roster lengthens, and now includes all of the four major sports, plus golf. The thing that distinguishes Glory Road is that, like Remember the Titans, it expands the fabric to embrace social issues. The film transpires in the mid-1960s in Texas, when skin color was crucial to a person's acceptance. It's this aspect of Glory Road (which takes a more honest approach than the aforementioned Remember the Titans) that elevates the movie above the usual underdogs-win-all motion picture.
The Texas Western Miners are a Division I basketball team, and that's all that matters to Coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) when he's offered the job for the 1965-66 season. The school's underfunded hoops program is no more than a minor irritant, as is the fact that his family has to live in the men's dorms. Haskins' lone goal is to win, and he wants the best players he can get with limited scholarship money. What he does shocks the faculty and alumni: he recruits seven black athletes, changing the composition and color of the team. The move, initially met with suspicion, skepticism, and hostility, is grudgingly accepted as the Miners rack up an undefeated record deep into the season and appear NCAA tournament bound. But the racial hatred in the South results in a series of death threats and incidents that have Haskins and his players questioning what they're doing. And, for a coach who initially argued that he was trying to win games, not make a statement, his use of his players down in the final game speaks louder than any words he could utter.
Glory Road's strength is the way in which it blends social awareness into the sports genre. It does this better than Remember the Titans. The earlier film soft-peddled racism. Glory Road is surprisingly hard-hitting for a PG-rated film. Not only do we get ugly scenes of players being physically and verbally assaulted (including a bathroom bushwhack and racial epithets scrawled in red on the walls of a motel room), but there's a sense of unease any time the black players enter a "white" establishment. Even when violence does not occur, the potential is thick in the air, and first-time director James Gartner does a solid job conveying the tension.
For those who love the genre, there's plenty to enjoy. Glory Road is a competently made story of a team with seemingly no chance to win that seizes the opportunity and rides it to the end. The basketball scenes are believably filmed, and history is given its due in generalities, if not in details. (Among other things, the film tinkers with how the final game unfolds.) The screenplay is based on the real-life 1965-66 Miners season, which is considered one of the most improbable in NCAA history. Haskins did the unthinkable not only by integrating his team in a part of the country not known for tolerance, but by fashioning one of men's basketball's most memorable Cinderella stories.
The film is skewed towards presenting the coach's story, giving Josh Lucas an opportunity to shine. It's one he takes, turning in what is arguably the most compelling performance of his career to date. The screen time accorded to Coach Haskins limits the movie's ability to develop the players to an appreciable extent. For the most part, they're individuals distinguished by a single personality trait (hot-dogging on the court, timidity, a weak heart, admiration for the Black Panthers, etc.). We never get to know the players, and it's their lack of development that marks one of Glory Road's weaknesses. Actors like Derek Luke (playing Bobby Joe Hill), Damaine Radcliff (playing Willie Scoops Cager), and Schin A.S. Kerr (playing David Lattin) do they best they can with limited material, but they aren't given much chance to move into the spotlight. There are nice supporting roles for Emily Deschanel (as Haskins' wife), Red West (as the team's crusty trainer), and Jon Voight (as venerable Kentucky basketball coach Adolf Rupp).
When compared to the greatest of all basketball movies, Hoosiers, Glory Road falls short. It lacks the depth and scope of storytelling that made the Gene Hackman movie a memorable experience. But this new feature fits into Disney's pantheon of sports pictures. It is uplifting and there's more meat on the bones than one might suppose from the anemic trailers and previews. Viewers with an appreciation of basketball will get the most out of the film, but there's enough here to keep non-sports aficionados involved and entertained, as well.

Movie Reviews and Criticism by James Berardinelli. Movie-Reviews.colossus.net