On paper, the life of legendary runner Jesse Owens looks like perfect movie material: the story of an African-American man who went to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and won four gold medals, thus single-handedly crushing Hitler's theory of Aryan superiority. Unfortunately, Stephen Hopkins' new Owens biopic Race never quite figures out how to successfully dramatize that tale. It's not for lack of trying: the film approaches the story from multiple angles (including one particularly odd one), but stumbles into tiresome biopic cliches at nearly every turn.
The film's early scenes feel pulled out of a “Hollywood Biopic 101” playbook. We watch as Owens (Stephan James, Selma) runs through the mud-filled streets of his Alabama hometown, makes eyes at his small-town sweetheart Ruth (Shanice Banton), heads off to Ohio State University, quietly endures some ugly racial slurs from some of the white students there, begins to make a name for himself as one of Ohio State's top runners and forms a friendship with track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, Horrible Bosses).
None of this material is bad, exactly, but it feels so familiar and unrevealing: yet another biopic falling into the “visual Wikipedia article” trap. Yes, the scenes are handsomely-staged, but filled with characters spouting cliched dialogue, generically inspirational music that feels copied and pasted from other films along these lines and a general sense of aimlessness. The movie has gone to great pains to accurately recreate all of its historical settings, but it doesn't seem to have much to say about its subject.
Indeed, even after we've spent more than two hours with him, Owens comes across as more of an icon than a character. He's fast, he works hard, he carries himself with quiet nobility and... well, that's about it. We never get a sense of what drove him to become the incredible athlete he became, and Stephan James – a capable actor who was good as a young John Lewis in Selma – struggles to convey a convincing sense of internal conflict during moments of personal crisis. Contrast his work with, say, Chadwick Boseman's turn in 42: both characters are similar on the surface (soft-spoken black athletes who were pioneers in their respective fields), but Boseman let you see the complex array of emotions beneath the public image. In Race, we only see the public image.
Perhaps recognizing that it's more or less short-changing us in terms of character development, the film begins exploring a number of other historical angles as it proceeds. With the 1936 Olympics looming, it takes us behind the scenes of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s moral dilemma over whether or not to participate, as man-of-conviction Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt, Body Heat) advocates for a boycott (in protest of Germany's embrace of Nazism) while the more cynical, business-minded Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) insists that nothing should stand in the way of America's participation. So, the committee sends Brundage to Germany in an attempt to negotiate a compromise on a handful of hot-button issues.
There, we discover further internal conflicts, as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) clashes with propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten, Game of Thrones) over the appropriate way to document the Olympic games (the short version: Goebbels wants to make sure that Riefenstahl depicts the Nazis in a flattering light, while Riefenstahl simply wants to make a compelling documentary). The film's decision to depict Riefenstahl as a good-hearted person secretly working to subvert Hitler's agenda is flat-out bizarre and entirely unsupported by history (Riefenstahl was certainly a complicated figure, but this is something else). I don't have an issue with filmmakers taking artistic license, but presenting the director of Triumph of the Will as a heroic figure is ill-advised at the very least.
Additionally, the film occasionally begins to feel like a Larry Snyder biopic, as a good deal of time is spent focusing on the track-and-field coach's attempt to persuade the powers-that-be to allow him to go to Berlin with Owens. A lot of this material feels like filler, and there's a possibility that it exists because Sudeikis is the biggest star present (all due respect to Hurt and Irons, acting legends who are no longer asked to headline big movies) and needs to have a certain amount of screen time. Whatever the case, Snyder never really becomes a compelling character on his own terms, though Sudeikis and James do work well together.
The film's most interesting moments are tucked away in the corners. In one scene, the NAACP asks Owens not to go to the Olympic games, insisting that it's every bit as important to protest the discrimination taking place against Jews in Germany as it is to protest the discrimination taking place against African-Americans in the U.S. Indeed, despite the fact that Owens goes to the games, succeeds and makes a powerful symbolic statement, it's a statement being made on behalf of a country that has little use for Owens. The film occasionally pauses to explore these complexities, and when it does, you see the challenging movie this could have been.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Year: 2016