The story of Olympics legend Jesse Owens has always stuck with me. Not because of the glory of winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin games, setting records in front of Adolf Hitler. It has stuck with me because it haunts me – that a man could be a national hero one day and then struggle in the longer RACE of life.
RACE doesn’t cover much of Owens’ life outside of his athletic peak. Being a pretty lame inspirational sports movie with broad points to make about racial relations means it will downplay rough or complicated points. (Better than to see all that rousing music go to waste.) But the real life version is so much more – a story waiting for an appropriate film. Hungry for money after the Olympics, Owens staged footraces with horses and motorcycles. He owned a failed dry cleaning operation, worked at a gas station, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. The idea of the world’s greatest athlete pumping gas is unimaginable nowadays. But such was the state of RACE relations in the country then. His country celebrated Owens but did not support him.
As a movie, RACE runs against the same headwind that track and field faces in the current television environment. After a long wait, the races last only a few seconds. So you have to make things up to fill in the other 99 minutes (actually 120 – for a film about speed, this one runs way too long). In RACE, the subplots come with blazing speed. There’s the drive to boycott the 1936 Olympics. The shady dealings between on American Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage and the Third Reich. Then once the games begin, we get more of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker—the talented, doomed Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice Van Houten)—than expected. Some of the subplots add character to the film, but too many of them, especially Owens’ home life, have dead legs and lead to dead air.
Still RACE doesn’t die entirely on the back turn. I rarely get excited by CG effects anymore, but the stunning reproduction of Berlin’s Olympic stadium is truly spectacular. Stephan James holds to a steady stride as the great runner, legging it out with considerable screen charisma, even if Jason Sudeikis, as his Ohio State coach, seems to be stranded with no joke to tell. Instead, all he can see are sports-inspirational go-get-em phrases for miles around. Rah-rah team!