‘Race’ movie review: Jesse Owens biopic doesn’t live up to potential
At The Movies
Directed By Stephen Hopkins
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton
Focus, Rated PG-13, Drama, 134 minutes
The title “Race,” is a clever double entendre for a film that doesn’t live up to its potential.
The film stars Stephan James as Olympic track and field medalist Jesse Owens. It’s 1934 when we meet Owens and stay to watch him earn four gold medals in 1936. Gleaning what we can from a screenplay that fails to examine the man, Owens was both people-pleasing and defiant, choosing the former as a means to get along, but resorting to the latter when pressed.
After sprinting in Chicago to tie the world record, Owens chose to attend Ohio State in order to train under track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).
A past Olympian himself, and virtually colorblind regarding race, Snyder fears that Owens’s natural running style will prevent him from reaching championship level. As it turns out, Owens is eager to learn. Coach Snyder becomes the runner’s big brother, mentor and benefactor. Constantly evolving over time, their relationship anchors the film through all its twists and turns.
James portrays a hardworking, predictable Owens, unwavering in his determination to marry his high school sweetheart and the mother of their 3-year-old daughter. As Coach Snyder, Sudeikis portrays a winsome Everyman, tapping into the Jimmy Stewart ether to deliver the rush of thoughts and emotions associated with fielding a winning track team, and molding an historical runner.
Jeremy Irons is notable as construction king Avery Brundage, an Olympic alumnus and president of the American Olympic Committee. One leg of the story depicts Brundage’s energetic efforts to ensure the U.S. competes in the Berlin games, while on the other side, president of the Amateur Athletic Union Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), presses hard for the USA to boycott the games.
The depiction of Brundage’s visit to Germany, where he bullies the Nazi minister of culture and propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), into complying with demands of nondiscrimination in order to secure our participation, is riveting and mildly ironic given our own segregation practices in 1936.
Along the way we meet the Fuhrer’s favorite filmmaker, the ambitious Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) — who compiled her footage of the games into the acclaimed two-part documentary, “Olympia.” We are uncertain whether she is sympathetic to Owens, or is simply a contrarian drawn to the transformative power of athletic accomplishment.
As Goebbels’s translator, Leni was obliged to translate his angry German words into English pleasantries designed to win Brundage’s support. At no time did she warn Brundage of Goebbels’s brewing resentment, an omission that contributed to involving Brundage in a scandal, following the games.
Filmed in slow motion with numerous close-ups, Owen’s races and long jumps receive extended screen time that feels more worshipful than artistic. Meanwhile, we see very little of his daily training regimen.
The depression era appears to be aptly recreated though we are shown little of the many hardships (poverty and discrimination), Owens endured. Certainly a man of his time on a great quest, as presented here, things came easily, and problems were solved quickly for Owens. But surely, there was much more to it than that.