A long way from greatness

by Richard Roeper

The list of truly memorable movies about track and field is a short one, including “Chariots of Fire,” “Personal Best,” “Saint Ralph,” “Without Limits” and a handful of others.

Maybe it’s because you can only do so much cinematically with many of the disciplines. While the long jump and the hurdles and the pole vault and the marathon can be exciting to watch in person or on TV, how do you create intense drama from these events?

“Race” tells the story of a brave and gifted and determined man who accomplished great feats during a pivotal moment in world history – but it’s a by-the-numbers sports biopic with little nuance and a penchant for saccharine-soaked dramatic moments.

Probably the best thing about the film is Stephan James’ performance as Jesse Owens, the legendary sprinter and long jumper who began gaining national acclaim as a high school athlete. “Race” concentrates primarily on the years 1935 and 1936, when Owens was at Ohio State University and then, of course, starring for the U.S. at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 – much to the disgust of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Unfortunately, the casting of Jason Sudeikis as Ohio State track and field coach Larry Snyder is a major misstep. There’s a certain lightweight quality to this performance that doesn’t seem to jell with the complexities of Snyder. The coach is a raging alcoholic, but he’s also a wonderful mentor to Jesse and a fierce defender of equal rights at a time when blacks weren’t allowed to even try out for the Ohio State football team. This is a rich, complex character – or at least it should be.

Director Stephen Hopkins pulls out all the stops to get us invested in Owens’ greatest moments, e.g., a Big Ten meet in 1935 in Ann Arbor, when Owens set three world records and tied a fourth within a 45-minute period.

The music swells. James does a fine job of mimicking Owens’ running and jumping styles. It’s all quite competent – just not very involving. A man jumping into a sand pit, followed by officials using a tape measure to ascertain just how far he’s leapt, simply isn’t in the same dramatic league as a boxing match or a football game.

When we move on to the Olympics, the relatively simplistic storytelling continues. We get an unnecessary sequence with Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union, calling for a U.S. boycott of the Games, with American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) arguing in favor of American participation. We know the U.S. participated, so what’s the point?

Occasionally “Race” delivers, especially in a late scene reminding us that when Owens returned to the states with four gold medals and the great honor of having humiliated Hitler, he not only didn’t get a hero’s welcome, he was often treated like a second-class citizen.

There’s a memorable movie to be made about the amazing, inspirational and controversial life of Jesse Owens. This is not a bad film and it’s a decent history lesson for those who don’t know the story of Owens and the ’36 Games, but it’s a long, long way from greatness.


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