Barry Pepper has gone from 61* all the way to 3. The actor is fast becoming the man to portray sports heroes.
In ESPN’s latest original, 3, Pepper plays racing legend Dale Earnhardt, tracing the stock-car icon from his North Carolina roots to stardom on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s Winston Cup circuit and his death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The movie presents important events at various stages of Earnhardt’s life, a method that is confusing at times and breaks up the narrative flow.
Earnhardt’s childhood is dominated by his overbearing father, dirt-track racer Ralph Earnhardt (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man), who also works at the local cotton mill to support his family. Ralph says he never wrecks his cars because he can’t afford it.
Young Dale wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but dad wants more for him.
Later, a teenage Dale drops out of school to follow his dream. On the track, he is reckless and not above trading paint to intimidate other drivers. At home, he fails to provide for his wife and baby son Kerry, despite also working at the mill.
After his first wife leaves, Dale focuses on his career and is soon competing against his father. He also remarries and has two more children, including Dale Jr., the more successful of the third generation of Earnhardt drivers.
While his personal life takes some major hits, his racing career takes off on the Winston Cup circuit, where he is named rookie of the year and follows with a championship in 1980.
Dale Jr. has the same relationship with his father that Dale Sr. had with his own dad. After some initial reluctance, Dale Sr. helps his son pursue a racing career. Earnhardt is also haunted by a vision of the wreck that will take his life.
Pepper does a decent job portraying Earnhardt, but the story speeds too fast for viewers to make a real connection. The film might have been better served had it taken a cue from Home Box Office’s 61*, where Pepper probed Roger Maris’s psyche in a narrower slice of the slugger’s life.
But kudos go to the writers and director for a movie that does not require extensive NASCAR knowledge, but also is not insulting to hard-core fans.
The film 3 bowed Dec. 11, on ESPN, with additional showings throughout the month on ESPN and ESPN2.