It’s not necessary to be a Dale Earnhardt fan to enjoy this movie. It’s not even necessary to be a racing fan. This is that rare creature that is an enjoyable, well-acted movie that stands as a film more than as a biography of an icon. And if this is how Dale Earnhardt is remembered—even if it’s a cleaned-up, sterilized, sometimes inaccurate version of what really happened in his life, he could have done much worse for creating memories.
It’s hard to imagine that Barry Pepper could be so believable as baseball legend Roger Maris (whom he strongly resembles) in the television movie 61* and then be equally believable as Earnhardt in this made-for-television movie produced by ESPN. Pepper is also one of the executive producers and somehow transforms himself into Earnhardt as the tender-hearted hard-ass who was far too complicated a human to be contained in a brief movie.
The film is most effective in the scenes with his father Ralph, exceptionally well-played by character actor J.K. Simmons. It’s absolutely compelling how two men could love each other so much and yet drive each other crazy. It set the tone for Dale’s relationship with his own children, Kerry (whom he did not see from age 5 to late teens), Dale and Kelly. There were two wrecked marriages and then the interesting and complex relationship with third wife Teresa. Bearing in mind how contentious the Teresa-Dale Junior relationship appears in real life, the over-protectiveness in the film doesn’t ring true, but in 2004 there was a real effort to idealize all the Earnhardts.
Although Dale died far, far too young, it’s tough to cram nearly 50 years of living into an hour and a half, so there are times when it feels a little jumpy. Even the well-drawn scenes could have been a bit longer, but they were slotting for a television time slot, including commercial breaks. Earnhardt fans will experience some frustration that the film overlooks various time frames and episodes in his life, and part of the disappointment is because Earnhardt’s fans all felt an individual bond with him. They are going to want a biographical movie to reflect what they saw, perceived and felt. No movie could or will ever be successful at that.
But if you like racing films that are first and foremost well-crafted films, you’ll like this movie and that appears to have been the primary goal rather than a factual account. (There are all kinds of errors in settings, race cars, sponsors, etc.) Few filmmakers have figured out how to combine exciting racing footage with introspective character scenes. Very shortly into 3, however, you should find that you stop care about nitpicking facts or figures. You need to allow yourself to just kick back and watch a handsome film about one of the most enjoyable race drivers ever.
He was one of a kind. So is this film.
Type of Racing: NASCAR stock car
Tracks: Metrolina Fairgrounds (Charlotte); Daytona, Charlotte, Rockingham.
Reel Racers: Barry Pepper, J.K. Simmons, Elisabeth Mitchell
Real Racers: Many contemporaries in cameo or on track
Year of Release: 2004
DVD Length: 92 minutes
Approx. On-Track: 26 minutes
. . . When buying or rent this DVD, get the two-disc collector set, which includes significant additional documentary footage with many knowledgeable commentators and fellow drivers. For the Earnhardt-obsessed, this may even surpass the bio film in quality and connection to the real man.
. . . The relationship between Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett was real. Earnhardt, in spite of his Intimidator persona on-track, had friends among the racers and often palled around with other drivers. But none was a better friendship than that with Neil, and one of the few failings of this film is in exploring Earnhardt’s effort to cope with Bonnett’s death. But then—he was such a private person, it was undoubtedly accomplished in private.
. . . The film alludes to recurring nightmares about bad wrecks. There’s no way for us to know if that really happened—as with some of the other questionable details—but again, get lost in the flow of a well-paced, sympathetic movie rather than worrying about accuracy.
. . . Another sad point is the failure to show how the Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip relationship evolved from a very contentious one into a real friendship. Yes, a film usually needs a “villain,” but the real life evolution was a lot more interesting.