For a film about one of the fastest men who ever lived, “Race” sure does take its time to get to the finish line.
It’s not that the new Jesse Owens biopic lacks thrilling moments. It’s that most of these take place on the last lap, when Owens finally gets to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics that “Race” has been building to for 100 minutes. There are a whole lot of plot hurdles to clear before then.
“Race” starts as Owens (Stephan James) is headed to Ohio State University to run track and field under coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Owens and the other few black runners on the team immediately run into adversity, mostly from the white athletes.
Snyder, seeing Owens’ raw talent, focuses on getting him ready for the ’36 Olympics — if, that is, the ’36 Olympics end up happening.
The movie’s B plot is concerned with this question. We get a few scenes of the Amateur Athletic Union deliberating on whether America will boycott the Games, which had been awarded to Germany before the Nazi government’s rise to power.
The biggest boycott proponent is union President Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who believes that America cannot, in good conscience, acquiesce to the Nazis’ “nasty little ideas.”
But Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, at his most growly since “The Lion King”), head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, stands against the boycott and (spoilers) steers the powers that be to send a USA team to Berlin.
This remains one of the most controversial decisions in Olympic history.
And so “Race” jumps around between these political maneuvers and Owens’ training and pre-Olympics races — including one at the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium!
We get a healthy amount of Owens’ personal life, including some melodrama involving his longtime girlfriend and glamorous new mistress.
We also get to take a few trips to Germany as it prepares to host the Olympics, where it will puff out its ubermensch chest for all the world to see. Sleepy-eyed vampire Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) is there. And also the apparently misunderstood filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (a perfectly cast Carice van Houten, of “Game of Thrones”). There’s even a little Hitler (Adrian Zwicker).
Trying to pack all these elements into a feel-good sports biopic is admirable. But the screenplay, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, can’t wrangle all the storylines into one narrative. Director Stephen Hopkins (“Predator 2”) takes a “Welp, good enough” approach to most sequences. This movie’s got some slacky bits that add up to a sluggish 134 minutes.
Still, the film’s thoroughness does add a dimension of nuance that these inspirational sports movies usually lack. The sad fact of Owens’ life was that he was actually treated much better in Berlin than he was back home. Hitler might have snubbed him (though this has been chalked up to myth by most), but Franklin Delano Roosevelt definitely snubbed him. Even following Owens’ astounding performance at the Olympics, he came back to the same racist and restrictive America, one still decades away from the Civil Rights Movement. An Olympic hero, and still he wasn’t afforded opportunities, still he struggled to make a living. This movie touches on that struggle.
“Race” certainly doesn’t try to cut the Nazis any slack; for the most part, their cartoonish evil feels right out of an “Indiana Jones” movie. But “Race” does underline the American hypocrisy of claiming the moral high ground over 1936 Germany when it was itself treating a large portion of its people like second-class citizens.
The film benefits from taking this complicated approach to history, even as it sprints toward its ultimate goal of giving audiences the fuzzy feelies.
“Race” also gets a bump from its leads. James does good work. He (and the screenwriters) let Owens be imperfect and conflicted, especially as his dreams clash with political realities.
At first Sudeikis feels like an awkward pick for surly coach Snyder, but he grows into the role, or maybe you just get used to him. He brings a live-wire zip to even the hoariest lines.
When James and Sudeikis share the screen, the movie is at its best. Their relationship is what “Race” is about, even if it’s frequently overshadowed by all the history the film needs to squeeze in. Their scenes keep a sometimes dull but usually dependable film chugging along to the finish.
There’s a great movie to be made about Owens. For now, we’ll have to settle for this pretty good one.
* * *
MOVIES THAT MADE THE PODIUM
Hollywood has an enduring fascination with the five interlocking rings and what they represent — “Eddie the Eagle,” the story of Olympic ski jumper Eddie Edwards, also comes out this month. Of course, some movies are “faster, higher, stronger” than others. Now that the judges’ decision is in, let’s award each film its respective medal.
“Chariots of Fire” (1981): The only Olympics movie to win best picture. Vangelis’ music theme has become synonymous with both the Games and many other forms of striving.
“Miracle” (2004): That time the U.S. hockey team single-handedly won the Cold War.
“Munich” (2005): Not a sports movie, but very much a movie about the Olympics.
“Downhill Racer” (1969): Cocky skier Robert Redford butts heads with gruff coach Gene Hackman. The downhill racing itself is exhilarating.
“Personal Best” (1982): Both a women’s track and field movie and a lesbian romance. And quite good in both respects.
“Prefontaine” (1997) / “Without Limits” (1998): A tale of iron will so inspiring they made it twice.
“Cool Runnings” (1993): Olympic glory in a bobsled, Jamaican-style.
“The Cutting Edge” (1992): Olympic glory in love.
“International Velvet” (1978): Olympic glory on horseback.
“Unbroken” (2014): Athlete and hero Louis Zamperini ran at the same 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens did.
“Blades of Glory” (2007): Falls on its face in the middle of a single Axel jump. Nothing to be done.
“Olympia” (1938): German propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s groundbreakingly well-made document of the same Olympics where Owens triumphed. Not to be seen without an acute sense of the film’s political context. But worth seeing.
— Micah Mertes