Up the Junction

Tom Berenger achieves the impossible with his portrayal of Paul "Bear" Bryant in the made-for-ESPN The Junction Boys: He's even more unlikable than he was in Platoon, in which Berenger played the scarfaced C.O. begging for a little friendly fire. Berenger's Bryant, much like the real (dead) thing, is the football coach who believes in literally kicking a man when down; when one of his Texas A&M football players collapses in a heap, his face a heat-stroked deep purple, Bryant plants his foot into the kid's chest and demands he get his lazy, faking ass off the ground. It's one example among dozens: Bryant, in his first year as Aggie football fuehrer, treated the 111 men he took to the desolation of Junction, Texas, like dummies and deadwood to be thinned from the ranks, tending to major injuries (broken backs, separated shoulders, severe dehydration) with Band-Aids and beratings and beatings. That's why only 35 men survived, why the team won but a single game in the Bear's bow at A&M; the others escaped, like captives from a P.O.W. camp. In 1954, such things were overlooked, if not tolerated; the Bear was a dinosaur, and his likes are all but extinct.

ESPN's second telefilm, following its unbearable Bobby Knight biopic, is horrific and not at all horrible; based on the Jim Dent-written book of the same name, it's among those rare football films that manage to convey the sport's brainless brutality while also getting across just why some boys are willing to suffer and sacrifice for a game. It gets a little cloying--the movie softens Bryant's boorishness toward the end, making him more sympathetic than Dent's portrayal in the book--but never boring, never preaching, never pandering; it's loaded with curse words (most a variation of "shit" or "piss") and overflows with more puke than a Monty Python sketch, and only a few times do you recognize those Texas accents as Australian (Berenger's among the few Americans in the cast, for whatever reason). It's even a touch moving, when Bryant is reunited with the Junction survivors 25 years later, when slugs turned to hugs and all was forgiven but never forgotten.