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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Earnhardt's fans will want more
3 fails to deliver a factual portrayal of the seven-time Winston Cup champion's life.
By BRANT JAMES
Published December 11, 2004
The brain trust at ESPN programming and production wasn't interested in making a movie about racing when it seized the sizable task of bringing to the screen the life and legend of the late Dale Earnhardt.
It was to be a human story, said executive vice president Mark Shapiro. Racing was to be "a thread, but it was a sidebar of the human being."
Give Shapiro credit for getting what he wanted. 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, which premieres at 9 tonight on ESPN, is long on human interest and shorter on the racing stories that made the seven-time Winston Cup champion the most popular driver in NASCAR before and after his death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb.18, 2001.
"It wasn't about the seven Winston Cups and the dramatic death," said Barry Pepper, who plays Earnhardt to a chilling likeness. "It was about Dale the man, this dynamic, complex, intelligent, crazy, whiskey-in-the-tea kind of guy who just raced through life at his own pace. He was just the modern archetypical Southern bad a-- from days of old. He was full-bore male macho energy - in your face - had that burning desire to be the best, and people saw that."
Give Shapiro credit for making the best in what has been a rogue's gallery of ESPN biopics. But 3 gives Earnhardt's monstrous fan base just enough of both of his lives to leave it wanting. Thirty years of legend jammed into 90 minutes of movie leaves little room for storytelling, even with Pepper's performance.
The question is whether fans will find enough in 3 to tear them up or leave them tearing at the film's factual reaches about a revered, scrutinized life.
Various members of Earnhardt's family, inner circle and NASCAR advised or offered assistance on the unauthorized biography, including son Dale Earnhardt Jr. Pepper acknowledged filmmakers encountered some resistance, but would not specify from whom.
Earnhardt Jr. has not commented on the movie publicly, though he said in November he expected a "Hollywood twist." Jade Gurss, Earnhardt Jr.'s public relations manager, said on his blog "the script is unintentionally funny, hooky and nowhere near reality."
Richard Childress, who fielded six of Earnhardt's championship teams, said ESPN researched and scripted the movie in an unprofessional manner and "the stuff I've seen, unless they've corrected it, was nothing (like) what really happened."
3 is a departure from its ESPN-produced predecessors in that the warts - unlike in films about former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight and baseball legend Pete Rose - largely have been removed. Whether that is in deference to the deceased, or to his family, friends and NASCAR for the access they allowed, the lone fault is Earnhardt's single-mindedness about winning.
Earnhardt is painted as a driven man, a product of a spartan upbringing in Kannapolis, N.C., but this strong-willed maverick appears constantly shaped and directed by dominant personalities. First was his father, Ralph, played by J.K. Simmons, a hard-edged dirt-track racer who imparts racing wisdom and love in small doses while trying to instill a work ethic that will keep his son out of the textile mills.
The other major force in Earnhardt's life dominates the second half of the movie. His third wife and widow, Teresa (Elizabeth Mitchell), is almost a benevolent Rasputin. In a scene set in 1981, as she and Earnhardt watch a young Dale Jr. race a go-kart, she predicts that NASCAR will surpass baseball in television ratings and that licensed merchandise will make the family a fortune. That's forward thinking, if factual, but was awkward in context.
Precognitive dialogue is not reserved for Teresa Earnhardt. Though inserting factoids into causal conversation can serve to advance plot, the device becomes heavy-handed. In a scene set in 1978, Earnhardt confesses to friend Neil Bonnett during a hunting trip that he can "see the air," referring to his uncanny ability - in the future - to draft on restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. Earnhardt and Bonnett - who died in a practice session before the 1994 Daytona 500 - foretell their fates like tragic Shakespearean heroes while sharing a cigar in a garage and while fishing in a bass boat.
Earnhardt's attempt to forge relationships with sons Dale Jr. and Kerry are interesting subplots.
Pepper, who played Roger Maris in 61*, credits the film as an "emotional medium" for its ability to convey Earnhardt's story as more than "electricity and the smoke show," but 3 fails at its climax. Though Earnhardt's last-lap crash is depicted with a tactful sensitivity, a moment of tremendous sorrow for his fans and peers - sure to be stirred by images and sounds from archival footage - it fails to convey a sense of loss.
For those fans who perpetuate this racing giant's legend, 3, like his life and career, is likely to leave his devotees wanting more.