Dark Days for the Black Knights
Saturday, December 10, 2005
One of the opening scenes in "CodeBreakers," an ESPN original movie about a cheating scandal at West Point in 1951, shows the Army football team entering the locker room before practice. Players pass a chalkboard on which is written a phrase: "You have to pay the price."
The phrase was a favorite of Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik (and the title of his biography). It also is a harbinger of what is in store for some of the cadets off the field.
The movie, at 9 tonight, focuses on the relationship between football player George Holbrook and his roommate and close friend, swimmer Brian Nolan. Holbrook is struggling academically; he is offered and accepts the answers to a physics exam by a teammate. In exchange, Holbrook provides the questions for an English test to several football players (though he does not get the answers to the physics exam). This is a violation of the West Point honor code.
Later in the movie, Holbrook offers to help Nolan get the questions to a math test. Nolan then begins the process of turning in the guilty cadets.
In all, 90 cadets were expelled in August 1951. Thirty-seven of them were football players.
The movie starts slowly. The dialogue between Holbrook and Nolan is that of people meeting for the first time instead of best friends. The scenes at football practice are good; the scenes from the Army-Navy game in 1950, however, are a little clunky and hard to follow. There also is a puzzling factual error. The Navy quarterback who led the upset of previously undefeated Army in 1950 was memorably named Zug Zastrow; in the movie, he is named Marlowe.
The movie picks up after football season. It also begins to focus on the relationship between Blaik and his son Bob, a junior and the starting quarterback. Bob Blaik is among the cheating cadets. The movie doesn't pull any punches in the relationship between father and son, nor the tension between Holbrook and Nolan once it's clear Nolan is the cadet who has turned in the others.
It also does a good job of delving into the "gray area" of the scandal -- that the cheating cadets were expelled partly because they were football players, and the administration believed they did not necessarily belong at the school. The cadets, for their part, could have lied about the cheating and likely would not have been expelled.
The movie's shortcoming is that it tries to do too much; it asks very good questions but doesn't always answer them clearly. Scott Glenn plays Earl Blaik, and he is a little too wooden. The real Blaik was certainly a bit taciturn but also well-read; he quoted from Tennyson's "Ulysses" when speaking of the cheating scandal at a dinner honoring him at the academy in 1976. The movie makes him out to be concerned only with football.
Overall, though, the movie is smart and compelling. And very believable.
CodeBreakers (two hours) airs at 9 tonight on ESPN.