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The film 24 Hour Party People offers a spirited piece of advice when it comes to the art of storytelling. "When you have to choose between truth and legend," says Tony Wilson, the Manchester, England music impresario, played artfully by Steve Coogan, "I say choose the legend."
The legend of Dale Earnhardt Sr. gets played up with Daytona-like intensity in 3, an ESPN's Original Entertainment film that premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. ET about the life and times of the NASCAR driver. Playing a real-life sports icon is often a losing proposition (see Bendix, William or Goodman, John) but the film (arguably ESPN's best effort yet following A Season on the Brink, The Junction Boys and the unwatchable Hu$tle) ultimately succeeds because of actor Barry Pepper's performance and his eerie resemblance to the late racer.
Earnhardt was a study of force and determination on the track, a man who ultimately reveled in his own Intimidator image, and Pepper throws himself into the role with the same boundless determination. (According to producer Lynn Raymor, makeup artist Stephan Dupuis made a face cast several months before shooting began to allow Pepper to develop the facial prosthetics and makeup that would be used to reshape his face and nose. Pepper also went to a dentist to have interior cheek molders made to order, and during shooting, he went into hair and makeup twice daily.)
The film begins in 1961 with Dale at age 10, and concludes with his final moments at Daytona in 2001. Along with plenty of racing scenes filled with brio and testosterone, the plot of 3 centers on Earnhardt's search for his father Ralph's affection; racing ultimately becomes a metaphor for a parental search for approval. If Dale can earn his daddy's respect on the track, he can earn his love. That's the intention behind the plot, though the film is ultimately carried by the action at the track.
Particularly convincing are the dirt track racing scenes from Ralph and Dale's days on the dusty dirt tracks of North Carolina. Give the filmmakers credit for constructing Earnhardt's stock cars to look as authentic as possible (Earnhardt Sr's pink K-2 car comes roaring through the screen, as does the No. 2 car Wrangler he drove for Rod Osterlund in the 1980s).
What ultimately makes this a good but not great effort is the clunky dialogue, and a few ham-handed scenes meant to tug at the emotional strings. When little Dale wonders why Ralph (played by the always terrific J.K. Simmons) didn't get out of his car when an angry competitor starting kicking his car after the race, he tells the boy: "It ain't about balls. Cause you already showed him your a man. On the track." When Dale Jr. tells his father that he nearly got a B in school, Pepper offers up parental advice from the Joan Crawford playbook. ("Almost is for losers, Dale," says Senior. "That ain't good enough for an Earnhardt.")
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Elizabeth Mitchell is game as Teresa Earnhardt but she's not given much more to do than look pretty and offer the occasional Tammy Wynette-inspired comfort for her man. "NASCAR's gotta have talent and your magic on the asphalt," Mitchell tells Pepper in a vanilla ode to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Days of Thunder.
Still, the ultimately test is whether Earnhardt fans will enjoy the portrayal of their hero. The guess here is that they will. Give 3 a three out of five stars.
ABC's NEW ANALYST
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal won't be the only pair worth watching on Christmas Day. The Lakers-Heat game marks the debut of Al Michaels and Hubie Brown, who joined ABC Sports as its lead analyst on the network's broadcast team less than two weeks after resigning from the Grizzlies because of health problems.
Brown, 71, will work with Michaels on a select number of regular season and playoff games, as well as the NBA Finals. He'll also work with Mike Breen on certain games (Mike Tirico, Steve Jones and Bill Walton form what has the look of an excellent studio crew).
Though he's spent the past couple of years trying to lasso the likes of Jason Williams and Bonzi Wells, Brown's broadcasting credentials are long and robust. He was the lead analyst at CBS from 1988-89 and also worked for the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons' local broadcasts. He's best known for his role as lead analyst with the TNT network for 12 years where he provided an often fascinating (if not occasionally laborious) dissection of the game. He has twice been nominated for an Sports Emmy.
Last season ABC struck broadcasting gold when Michaels and Boston Celtic coach Doc Rivers meshed immediately. Rivers, in particular, proved to be bright, self deprecating and egoless and allowed Michaels the freedom to often be a co-analyst as well as lead broadcaster.
Brown, as evidenced by his years on the air and a conference call this week, is not known for pithy commentary. The man likes to expand his vocal chords, often brilliantly, and it will be fascinating to watch the development of two guys who like to talk.
"As the Al and Hubie team matures, you'll see the same thing happen that's happening on our NFL broadcast," said ABC Sports executive producer Mike Pearl. "You'll see Hubie leaning a little toward Al's style and Al picking up and learning from Hubie the X's and O's part of the game."
ODDS AND ENDS
ESPN's Chris Fowler says this year's Heisman Trophy ballot was the toughest he's ever had to fill out. "I think it is tough to figure out which of the two guys from USC and Oklahoma fits the definition of most outstanding," Fowler says. "You have to decide that before you can proceed with the vote. I think that you'll have Jason White, Matt Leinart, Adrian Peterson in the top-three in some order with probably the two quarterbacks going one and two." ... Of the 44 touchdown passes Peyton Manning has thrown so far this season, the Colts quarterback has tossed 33 touchdowns on games featured on CBS. That must be fun to watch for The NFL Today'sDan Marino. ... Former Dolphin coach Dave Wannstedt will serve as a Fox analyst for the 49ers at Cardinals this Sunday.
AND JUST BECAUSE I LOVE THE SPORT ...
The Media Circus Weekly Women's College Basketball Top 5:
1. LSU (8-0) Last week: No. 1 No games, no change for LSU
2. Duke (7-1) Last Week: NR Beat Tennessee in Knoxville; Nice to see swingman Monique Curry finally playing like a star
3. Connecticut (4-1) Last week: No. 4 Don't care what the polls say. This is a top five team.
4. Baylor (6-1) Last week: No. 5 Still haven't beaten anyone but only loss is a 71-70 nailbiter at LSU.
5. North Carolina (7-1) Last week: No. 3 Stunning loss at unranked Penn State, though they should be 12-1 with five very winnable games coming up (Coastal Carolina, Georgia St, Lipscomb, Old Dominion, Winthrop).