A review of ESPN's upcoming Earnhardt biopic

A review of ESPN's upcoming Earnhardt biopic

A review of ESPN's upcoming Dale Earnhardt biopic Special to Motorsport.com by Bill King Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 16, 2004 - The house lights came up as images faded on the big screen. Three score ink-stained wretches and talking heads from...

A review of ESPN's upcoming Dale Earnhardt biopic
Special to Motorsport.com by Bill King

Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 16, 2004 - The house lights came up as images faded on the big screen. Three score ink-stained wretches and talking heads from racing's fourth estate sat transfixed for several seconds. A few soft handclaps swelled to an appreciative round of applause for ESPN's latest made-for-television movie, "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story" which will air over 90 minutes on Saturday, Dec. 11, at 9:00 pm Eastern.

Barry Pepper as Dale Earnhardt.
Photo by Travis Bell - ESPN.
Most of the journalists at Tuesday evening's preview audience at Phillips Place Theatre in south Charlotte had known Dale Earnhardt at both the professional and personal levels, and there were many takes on the details. However, the overwhelming consensus was that ESPN had produced a fine movie, worthy of a general audience but also satisfying to the inner circle.

From the commercial standpoint, the film is virtually guaranteed to achieve instant cult status among the mass of fans who still worship at the altar of the stylized 3.

Australian director Russell Mulcahy and screenwriter Robert Eisele successfully capture the father-son tough love that defined the relationship between Ralph Earnhardt and Dale and later between Dale and Dale Jr. That excruciatingly mental but never physical interplay drove the plot as surely as it drove the lives of those three characters.

The film's central figure is played to an eerie perfection by Barry Pepper who shares the executive producer's role with Orly Adelson. In expressions, reactions, body language, Pepper is Dale Earnhardt reincarnate.

Barry Pepper as Dale Earnhardt.
Photo by Travis Bell - ESPN.
Filming was entirely in North Carolina. Particularly striking are gauzy images from the now defunct Cannon mill caught in the sepia haze of suspended cotton dust that poisoned the lungs of so many textile workers. It was the spectre of that mill that drove Ralph, stoically portrayed by veteran character actor J. K. Simmons, to the racetrack where cold-blooded guile produced sufficient cash flow to keep his family together and fed.

Scenes from Dale's youth were filmed around the white-framed Kannapolis house that his mother Martha still calls home. Ralph's two-bay cinder block shop building in Martha's backyard was used extensively in the filming. Veteran actress Andrea Powell protrays Martha.

Young Earnhardt's drive to secure his father's approval shaped his formative years and doomed two marriages to the scrap heap of short track racing before he was 25. Earnhardt's three eldest children - Kerry, Kelly and Dale Jr. - were born into that hardscrabble world.

Lori Beth Edgeman plays Kerry's mother, Latane Brown, while Brandi Ryans plays Earnhardt's second wife, Brenda Gee. Both actresses convincingly convey the frustrations of those lean, early years.

The table now set, Earnhardt's ascendancy to seven-time Winston Cup champion is succinctly documented in the remaining half of the film. Elizabeth Mitchell warmly portrays Teresa Houston Earnhardt, the filmmakers choosing not to deal with the woman's ironhard core. Though softly presented, Teresa's strength and support are manifest.

David Sherrill's spot-on portrayal of 40-year-old promoter Humpy Wheeler giving local short track star Earnhardt his first Cup break is right out of a time machine. Wheeler set Earnhardt up with sportsman Rod Osterlund and Earnhardt's major-league career lifted off.

There are some great vignettes along the way:

* Jake Elder (languidly played by Nick Searcy) who wrenched young "Ironhead" to rookie-of-the-year and Cup champion his first two seasons saying, "Stick with me, kid, and we'll win diamonds big as horse turds."

* RJR's T. Wayne Robertson (Mike Flippo) and Junior Johnson (David Hager) convincing Earnhardt to make a leap of faith and go with Richard Childress (Ron Prather) though his gut was telling him otherwise.

Of the many characters that crossed paths and swords with Earnhardt for 20- some years, ESPN chose his great friend Neil Bonnet (Shaun Bridgers) and arch rival Darrell Waltrip (Greg Thompson) as storyboard vehicles for Earnhardt's ascendancy to living legend.

The outdoor sporting scenes with Bonnet provide much of the film's comic relief. The two rag on each other unmercifully, firing rounds of buckshot through the other's foibles. Unfortunately, Thompson seems miscast as the flamboyant Waltrip, spoiling a bit of the irony in the final minutes of the film.

Barry Pepper as Dale Earnhardt with David Sherrill as Humpy Wheeler.
Photo by Travis Bell - ESPN.
True racing aficionados will appreciate ESPN's attention to detail, examples being the authentic Goodyear caps worn by Ralph and Dale in the early sequences. The short track racing footage is well edited and not hokeyed up. The Winston Cup footage is archival with the editing again crisp. As a racing film, "3" rings true.

The film also rings true at the relationship level. The recurring father- son theme is further examined through Earnhardt's complex bond with his boys - Kerry from an awkward distance and Junior from the perspective of strict parenting. With both sons, the legacy of their tough grandfather rules the day.

Kerry is played with great sensitivity by Frank Glidden, with Junior portrayed by Chad McCumbee, an instructor at Andy Hillenburg's Fast Track High Performance Driving School where Pepper trained.

The fact that we all know the end of this story does not diminish the impact. There were few dry eyes among that often-cynical media group on screening night.

Pay particular attention to the film's opening sequence where the young boy waits at the mill gate for his father. That scene will come back to put the emotional cap on this fine production.

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