- on Friday, 19 February 2016 15:37
- by Frank Wilkins
There’s a lot going on in Stephen Hopkins’s double-entendre-titled biopic, Race about one-time fastest man in the world Jesse Owens (Stephen James). Then again, there was a lot happening in the world at the time Owens burst on the scene as record-breaking Ohio State track star and eventual Hitler-shaming world icon.
Any one of the film’s individual side plots is rich enough in subject matter and historical context to mold an entire movie around, but Hopkins bravely takes them all on and, for the most part, emerges as a champion with a film that needs to be seen by all even though it isn’t nearly as strong as it could be.
Rather than an all-compassing cradle-to grave biopic, Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse focus their story on the most eventful years of the legendary runner’s life, from 1934 to 1936 as Owens goes off to college, becomes an elite runner by setting or tying 4 track and field world records within an hour’s time, then struggles with the decision of whether or not to participate in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics.
There would be enough fascinating story to tell had Owens achieved his great feats in any other period in history. But the time frame of those accomplishments was also of great dramatic interest to Shrapnel and Waterhouse who wisely go beyond the borders of a typical sports film and immerse their story in wider political and social waters.
Adolph Hitler saw the 1936 Olympic games as the perfect platform from which to promote his newly bolstered government and its fascist ideals of racial supremacy. Appalled at the idea of such systemic racism, the U.S. very nearly chooses to not participate in protest of Hitler’s regime. But they eventually do and Owens goes on to totally embarrass the German Reich Chancellor with four gold medals, nine Olympic records, and three world records.
Before he is faced with the decision of attending the Berlin games, Owens was running track at Ohio State University in the mid 30s under the tutelage of coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who himself had lost an opportunity to participate in the 1924 Paris Games. Owens occasionally sends envelopes containing a few dollars back home to his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and daughter. He proceeds with plans to marry her during his college years to fend off reports of his philandering with a barroom floozy.
There’s plenty of sobering irony in the fact that Owens left a deeply racist society – in which he wasn’t even allowed to ride in the front of a bus – to participate in a country widely known to be killing Jews and other minorities on a systematic basis. And that statement is played to great effect by Hopkins and company, especially in a particularly crushing closing scene as Owens and his wife are forced to use the service entrance at a New York celebration being held in his honor.
His thunder mostly stolen by our knowledge of Owens’s real-life athletic conquests, Hopkins wisely chooses to never spend too much time with his sports scenes. James clearly worked hard on conditioning and nails Owens’s unique running style, but Hopkins’s film is always more interesting when it’s less about sport and more about Hitler’s humiliation on the world stage. Though Hitler is only rarely seen in brief snippets, the Nazi leader’s bitter frustration and embarrassment are reflected perfectly in the concerned faces and troubled actions of his handlers.
Interesting subplots involving U.S. Olympic Committee leader Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who gets his own personal business interests entangled with America’s political decision of whether to boycott the Olympics, and Berlin filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s (Carice van Houten) defiance of Hitler and Goebbels to film the games deserve more attention.
Hopkins is clearly a perfectionist as his film looks beautiful and feels just right as a cherished snapshot of a brief but glorious moment in sports and world history. But with so much to cover in a single 2-hour plus film, his Race plays out more like a drumbeat of highlights than it does a tribute to the man who ESPN ranks as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century and the highest-ranked in his sport.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and language.
Runtime: 134 mins
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writer: Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree
Genre: Sports | History | Biography
Tagline: The incredible true story of gold medal champion Jesse Owens
Memorable Movie Quote: "The American people need champions"
Distributor: Focus Features
Official Site: http://www.focusfeatures.com/race
Release Date: February 19, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. “Race” is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man’s fight to become an Olympic legend.
No details available.