Fresh off “Four Minutes,” ESPN returns to the 1950s and comes up with another winning pic — one that possesses greater resonance in terms of modern college sports and double standards governing athletes. Dealing with a cheating scandal that rocked West Point and Army’s then-powerhouse football team, pic is distinguished by a nifty period look, solid perfs throughout and complex exploration of whistle-blowing, rule-bending and the anything-to-win mentality that remains prevalent today.
“Codebreakers” (a terrible title that sounds more like a World War II espionage thriller) also features a born-to-play role for Scott Glenn as Army’s snarling, grizzled football coach Earl “Red” Blaik. His assistant was none other than Vince Lombardi (Richard Zeppieri), who went on to gain fame coaching the Green Bay Packers and is credited with the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
That determination to win, however, often comes at a price — in this case, an answer-passing system among members of the Army team, who, in 1950, were in the midst of a dominant winning streak. That success fueled an almost messianic zeal, with Blaik insisting his charges don’t just represent West Point: “We play for the American people.”
Yet as is so frequently true, the brawniest and swiftest on the field aren’t always the brainiest and swiftest in the classroom. So the players began assisting each other in an elaborate scheme, convinced the coaches either know what they’re up to or at least are willing to look the other way.
Of course, cheating violates the military’s honor code, creating a moral dilemma for several of these young officers in training, among them Blaik’s son Bob (Corey Sevier), both a gridiron star and a top student; and roommates Holbrook (Jeff Roop) and Nolan (Zachery Bryan). When one of them chooses to report the malfeasance, it threatens to rock the institution and trigger the dishonorable discharge of the co-conspirators.
Working from a script by G. Ross Parker, veteran episodic director Rod Holcomb brings a starched efficiency to the proceedings, including a particularly well-staged re-enactment of the Army-Navy game. In many respects, the movie is reminiscent of John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out,” as even players reluctant to participate at first are drawn in by the apparent ease of a perilous situation that, as the younger Blaik realizes, “is spreading too wide.”
Both the Toronto locations and the fresh-faced cast lend period authenticity to the production, though at times it’s difficult to distinguish one young cadet from another. Nevertheless, there are enduring themes here about the courage to resist peer pressure as well as viewing athletes as a privileged group to whom the usual rules don’t apply.
Granted, ESPN’s forays into dramatic fare remain a little fuzzy strategically, especially with its drift toward less recognizable topics after more easily marketed (but less appealing) biopics of Pete Rose, Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Knight.
Still, a good movie’s always welcome, and “Codebreakers” cracks that code.