Glory Road is such a formulaic and forgettable sports movie that I keep forgetting it was about the Texas Western College basketball championship season of 1966 and not about the University of Texas football championship season of 2005. Admittedly the screening I attended took place the day before the big football game, and the orange that the Texas Western team wore was strikingly similar in shade to UT's burnt orange. And they were both big upsets.
However, the Texas Western upset was considered notable in sports history because the college was the first to start five black basketball players on the court at once. As the movie tells us, NCAA teams at the time would never have more than one or two black players on the court; the Kentucky Wildcats team that Texas Western played in the tournament had no black players at all.
Even if you know very little about basketball, you know how Glory Road will end. For one thing, Disney has been advertising this movie as an inspiring story about an underdog team that wins the NCAA tournament title. The movie is structured so that the winning game is the climactic scene of the movie, even though we have been told the result. This is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave.
However, the fact is that many people enjoy watching a film in which they know exactly what will happen and how the characters will behave. After all, how many fans of Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, and C.S. Lewis books have flocked to see adaptations of those books into movies? In that sense, Glory Road can be entertaining.
Personally, I want more out of a movie than Glory Road was able to offer. Promotions for this film claim that the Texas Western team changed college basketball as well as the course of history. I would have preferred a movie that showed me exactly how things changed ... or did not change. What was the team like the year after the unexpected win? How did the Wildcats coach and team and other NCAA teams change? How did the rest of the Texas Western campus treat the winning team, and did the campus attitude towards black students change at all? I would particularly have enjoyed seeing what happened to the black students on the team and how the win affected them, for better or worse. (Some of these questions were answered during the closing credits, but that's not the same as seeing them played out as the drama of the film.)
Instead, we see the Texas Western team climb from being a group of stereotypical misfits to a close-knit team that learns to understand themselves and each other and play well together, until they reach the ultimate tournament game. Some suspense is added with a team member who has trouble learning to play fearlessly, a team member with low grades, and a team member with serious health problems who perhaps shouldn't be playing at all. The predictable arc of the story made me nostalgic for the ending of the 1976 Bad News Bears ... I wish we had more movies in which the team loses but gets beer.
Glory Road isn't meant to be a movie that makes us think, or that makes us uneasy in any way. It's meant to make us feel good. We can look back at the awful way in which the black athletes were treated 40 years ago and feel complacent that things are better now. You can almost see the self-congratulatory white filmmakers in the background, just off-camera, gloating about how wonderful they are for making such an inspiring movie about advances toward racial harmony.
The ads for Glory Road remind us again and again that the movie was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and that he also produced Remember the Titans. I haven't seen the film, but it sounds like the same type of feel-good picture as Glory Road, possibly improved by having Denzel Washington in the lead.
The characters in Glory Road have very little depth. Josh Lucas plays Coach Don Haskins as a guy who yells at the team a lot but that's just to make them a better team. We never quite understand him. The basketball team members all have personality quirks so we can distinguish one from another: the guy with bad grades whose mother actually shows up to straighten him out; the guy who has to hide his girlfriend from the coach; the big-city slicker stuck in a small Texas town; the guy from the sticks who thinks El Paso is a big city; the guy who reads Malcolm X (but doesn't actually do anything radical); the guy with a heart condition who just wants to play one last time and doesn't care if it kills him. No surprises here, and no real standouts.
Poor Emily Deschanel is stuck in such a cookie-cutter role as the coach's supportive wife that the filmmakers could have edited in any other supportive wife performance from a half-dozen recent films without anyone noticing. Jon Voight is also wasted in a small role as the Kentucky Wildcats coach.
The dialogue is chock-full of cliched platitudes about teamwork and winning and so forth. When one team member complains that "They're trying to take away our dignity," the coach predictably responds with "No one can take away what you don't give them." Another example: "It was always just a game to me. Now it feels like more than a game." Glory Road has no subtlety, no subtext; the characters plainly state what they are feeling in familiar terms.
I confess that for me, one of the most entertaining aspects of the movie was something few people would enjoy unless they were from the New Orleans area. Several of the gym scenes in the film were shot at a New Orleans high school where I once attended dances and where my brother now teaches, and which was ruined by Hurricane Katrina. When the story started to bore me, I amused myself by trying to spot the Jesuit High School gym. I never did recognize the gym, but then I hadn't seen it since high school and it got awfully dark in there during the school dances.
I saw Glory Road with a couple of friends, one of whom watches many more sports events than I do. After the film, he noted that he'd seen an ESPN documentary on the Texas Western team that was much, much better than Glory Road. His point was strengthened by the fact that some brief interviews with the actual team members that played during Glory Road's closing credits were far more interesting than the movie itself. If you're really interested in this team and its accomplishments, maybe you should seek out the documentary.
But if you want to sit back and let a familiar story of underdog triumph wash over you, with fast-paced sports scenes and occasionally amusing moments, than by all means see Glory Road.