"3" Not A Charm

While the life story of the late Dale Earnhardt is a fascinating tale that needs telling ESPN's first stab at the Intimidator’s biography falls short of the movie the subject matter deserves. The project was probably doomed from the start by two factors.

First the project never received the blessings of the Earnhardt family or NASCAR. While it’s a minor point every time during the film the unauthorized biography shows a red 3 rather than the proper white slanted 3 with a red outline it’s still jarring for Earnhardt fans. Perhaps in an attempt to draw Teresa Earnhardt’s blessing before the film earned “3” goes beyond respectful to occasionally fawning. Earnhardt is shown without any warts or rough edges.

Secondly, and more importantly, the film has only 90 minutes to tell the story of a man’s life that lasted almost fifty years. Given that constraint it was inevitable the film could not do Earnhardt’s colorful and storied life justice. Because of the time constraints the film’s producer had to adopt a theme early and cling onto it like a pit bull with a raw T-bone in his jaws and unfortunately the film’s basic premise misses the mark. The film that needed to be made would have shown Dale as an American folk hero, a kid from humble circumstances with a dream who pursued with relentless determination as he rose to levels of success, both professionally and financially, that even he could not have imagined as a dirt track ace growing up in a mill town. Rather “3” portrays Earnhardt’s life as a Greek tragedy. Because of circumstances beyond his control, Earnhardt’s desperate need for his father’s approval even after Ralph’s death, he must continue racing though he knows ultimately he will die in a race car. The portents of his fate come fast and furious in the movie starting with a moody discussion between Earnahrdt and “Suitcase” Jake Elder in 1981. Several times throughout the movie Earnhardt wakes up in a cold sweat from nightmares about wrecks. Whether Earnhardt ever had a premonition of his demise or such nightmares during his life I can not say for certain. But his off track swagger and the limited comments he made about wrecks during his career don’t square with the movie’s portrayal of a Earnhardt as a doomed tragic figure. While the movie uses one infamous Earnhardt quote it takes it out of context. In the wake of the tragic death’s of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Earnhardt told other drivers who thought NASCAR needed to do something to make racing safer they ought to tie rags soaked in kerosene around their ankles to keep ants from crawling up their legs and eating their candy-asses. As the film arrives in Daytona for the 2001 500 the Greek chorus portending the tragedy we all know will occur that Sunday hits a fevered wail as the film attempts to tug at the heartstrings. The evening before the 500 Earnhardt pays a late night visit to see his son Dale Jr. (Who oddly enough is sitting in a lawn chair by himself sucking down brews without his entourage anywhere in sight.) Earnhardt tells Junior he wants him to start using one of those “harness devises” (presumably a HANS or a Hutchens.) That doesn’t square at all with my recollections of how Earnhardt felt about such devices, which he considered unnecessary and even dangerous in the final months of his life. Mercifully the footage of the fatal accident stops with the 3 car out of control but prior to Earnhardt’s impact into the outside wall. Only Darrell Waltrip’s comment “I sure hope Dale is all right” (taken from the very end of the actual FOX broadcast of the 2001 Daytona 500) lets anyone unfamiliar with the tragic events of that day know something has gone terribly wrong.

Many reviewers were touched by the “Field of Dreams” style final scene I won’t reveal here for the sake of anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. I didn’t find it that touching but then I am a well-known cynic. I think a better ending would have involved footage of the numerous memorials and outpouring of grief that followed the tragedy of 2-18-04. In my eyes some mention of how many lives Earnhardt touched during his fifty years on earth and how much he was loved by his fans would have better shown that even though his life ended prematurely Earnhardt’s life was one well lived. Maybe that’s not a perfect way to end the film either but I’m not a filmmaker and I reject the idea of Heaven as a dying mill town in North Carolina.

Given the script they had to work with some of the principal cast does a decent job. Barry Pepper’s resemblance to Earnhardt particularly as a younger man is sometimes eerie. He got Earnhardt’s Carolina accent down fairly well though he misses some of the fractured grammar Earnhardt was noted for. (Had I wanted him wrecked he’d have been wrecked, now wouldn’t he?.) The young actor portraying Earnhardt Junior sounded more like Junior than Dale does these days after the finishing schools programmers have gotten to him. Elizabeth Mitchell falls short of the mark as Earnhardt’s wife Teresa. She portrays Teresa as whiny, needy and constantly afraid, not the Steel Magnolia who took over the operation of DEI in the days following her husband’s tragic demise.

Due to time constraints perhaps large portions of Earnhardt’s life story go untold. While Neil Bonnett is a constant in the story up until his tragic death there is no mention of Dale’s close friend Tim Richmond other than a possible wordless cameo by a good looking young man hitting on pretty ladies at the Victory party. The film shows NASCAR and Winston officials helping set Earnhardt up with Richard Childress but there’s no mention of the fact Earnhardt left Childress at the end of that season and drove for Bud Moore for a couple less than successful seasons in a Ford. In fact the film ignores entirely those futile years in the early to mid 80s when many pundits felt Earnhardt was washed up and his 1980 championship was a fluke. Other than a comment by Darrell Waltrip to Dale that dealing with the press is part of a Cup driver’s job there’s no mention of Earnhardt’s often reclusive and occasionally surly relationship with the racing press that to a large extent (particularly in the case of ESPN) helped make him a household name and a legend. More importantly there is next to no mention of Earnhardt’s huge army of fans and their undying loyalty to and affection for their driver even in the rough times. For a film marketed under the convoluted tagline “ one man, one sport, one nation” that’s unforgivable.

I suppose I should make mention of some of the racing inaccuracies in the film but that strikes me as boastful chest-thumping trying to prove that I know more about racing than the next guy. OK, it should have been a Camaro, not a Nova and almost all the races take place at Rockingham (ironically enough) but that doesn’t detract much from the story. Some of the filmed racing action is quite good while at other times it’s clear the drivers are lapping the track at low speed and “action” is added by playing the footage at triple speed. What is curious is why with all the archival footage they have of Earnhardt’s glory years so little racing made the final edit of the film. Pepper spends more time sitting weepy eyed at a kitchen table than he does at the wheel of a car.

The life story of Dale Earnhardt still needs to be told. Another ninety minute film isn’t going to cut it either. What Earnhardt’s story deserves is a gifted director and producer given ten two hour segments run commercial free on HBO or Showtime to tell the fully story with help from the Earnhardt family. Even at that they’d be hard pressed to get the story told correctly but they’d have a better shot at doing so with less time constraints. Pepper could be invited back to reprise his role as the Intimidator but Mitchell needs to move on to some three hanky “not without my daughter” weeper on Lifetime. I’ll give ESPN an “A” for intent, this is a story that needs telling, but a “C-“ for execution. “3” promises more than it delivers and that misshapen 3 isn’t the only thing that leaves Earnhardt’s fans seeing red.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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