‘Race’: Telling the story of the amazing Jesse Owens, routine biopic falls short

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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 fictional drama from these events? Even a close race can be filmed only so many ways, whereas the winning touchdown pass or a dramatic home run in the bottom of the ninth or a last-second goal can take on myriad forms.

“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’ strong 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 tearing up the track 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. Sudeikis is a versatile talent capable of switching gears from comedy to drama, but there’s a certain lightweight quality to this performance that doesn’t seem to jell with the gravitas and 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. The public address announcer seems to be talking more to us than the crowd as he tells us about each event and how amazing it is that Jesse is doing what he’s doing. James does a fine job of mimicking Owens’ running style 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 1936 Olympics, the relatively simplistic storytelling continues. We get an unnecessary albeit well-acted sequence with Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union, calling for 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?

Barnaby Metschueat hams it up as the snarling snake Joseph Goebbels, while Carice van Houten plays the documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl as a sassy, fearless dame who showcases Owens’ superiority over the Germans (and every other competitor), even though of course it doesn’t fit Hitler’s pre-conceived narrative.

In real life, the German athlete Carl “Luz” Long gave Owens some advice for the long jump, was the first to congratulate Owens for winning (Long took silver) and walked arm-in-arm with Owens as they walked off the track. In “Race,” the beginning of this beautiful friendship is depicted in such a hokey manner it doesn’t do justice to history.

Occasionally “Race” delivers, especially in a late scene reminding us 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, inspiration and controversial life of Jesse Owens. This is not a bad film and it’s a decent history lesson for those that don’t know the story of Owens and the ’36 Games, but it’s a long, long way from greatness.

[s3r star=2/4]

Focus Features presents a film directed by Stephen Hopkins and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Running time: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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