Football seems to be the favorite subject for ESPN Original Entertainment. The unit’s CodeBreakers uses the sport as a backdrop, but the film has more in common with coming-of-age dramas like School Ties.
The docudrama focuses on the cheating scandal that brought down Army’s powerhouse Black Knights team of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Led by legendary coach Earl “Red” Blaik (Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff) — and his assistant, a young Vince Lombardi (Richard Zeppieri, Monk) — the squad is on the verge of a third-straight undefeated season in 1950.
For West Point’s scholar-athletes, there is immense pressure. Aside from vying for a perfect season and a national championship, players face the specter of shipping off to Korea upon graduation, as well as Blaik’s challenge to keep their grades up.
In order to maintain their eligibility for the Army-Navy game, several participate in a test-cribbing scheme, including Bob Blaik (Corey Sevier), the coach’s son; running back George Holbrook (Jeff Roop); Cadet Straub (Jake Busey, Starship Troopers); and Cadet DeSantis (Theo Rossi), the apparent ringleader.
Holbrook needs to pass a physics exam to make the trip to Philadelphia for the corps showdown. He joins the ring, but passes his test without its help. The whole team makes the trip, but they are pounded by the Midshipmen.
The troubles come the following spring when Holbrook offers his roommate Brian Nolan (Zachery Bryan, Home Improvement) help in his math class.
Nolan goes to the school commandant with info about the honor code violation and is then recruited to help take the cheating ring down.
The story is compelling, if choppy in places. More effort could have been made to develop some of the supporting characters, especially the Blaiks. Their relationship plays a part in the last half, but the father-son dynamic could have benefited from some fleshing out early on.
Viewers looking for pigskin action also may be disappointed. There are few football scenes, but those presented — notably a recreation of the highlights of the 1950 Army-Navy game — have the look and feel of vintage NFL Films. The film’s creators wisely refrained from adding gratuitous gridiron action that would not have moved the plot forward.
Keeping most of the action focused on the exploration of West Point’s history of tradition and honor is what makes CodeBreakers worth a look.
CodeBreakers debuts Saturday, Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. (ET) on ESPN and ESPNU.