Friday, February 19, 2016

Race: Gold medal material, bronze execution

Race (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for thematic material and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

When it comes to true-life sports sagas, few can match the triumphant power of Jesse Owens’ amazing feats at the 1936 Olympics.

Having demonstrated his incredible speed on the track, Jesse Owens (Stephan James,
center) is congratulated by his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, far right). Both
have their eyes on the bigger prize: qualifying for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
His few days in Berlin, striking a glorious blow against Adolf Hitler’s racist vision of Aryan supremacy, resonated to a degree that can’t really be calculated. Certainly the Nazi despot was humiliated before the world, and one can’t help speculating whether the subsequent timetable of German events was influenced by such embarrassment.

Such a story.

So sad — and so puzzling — that the better part of a century has passed, before it was brought to the big screen.

Director Stephen Hopkins has made up for this oversight, with the family-friendly Race — great title, just in passing — which displays a degree of heart and dignity that Owens likely would have appreciated.

Despite the existence of numerous published biographies and Owens’ own memoir, writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have fashioned an original script that focuses solely on the two years leading up to the 1936 Olympics. That’s a shrewd decision, as it allows this 134-minute film to concentrate on these key events without feeling rushed.

We catch up with Owens (Stephan James) in 1934, just as he’s about to begin his college career at Ohio State University. He leaves behind a girlfriend, Ruth (Shanice Banton), and their young daughter, promising to send money whenever possible. Sadly, and despite being mentored by head track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Jesse finds the locker room environment unpleasantly racist.

No doubt the reality was much worse than what is depicted here. We certainly get the point, but Hopkins chooses a restrained approach more akin to 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, than the often grim brutality of Selma (which also featured James).

The bond between Owens and Snyder becomes this film’s heart, a dynamic that gains its emotional heft from the easy camaraderie that flows between James and Sudeikis. They work well together; while Owens is appropriately deferential toward his hard-driving coach, Snyder never takes advantage. The relationship feels mutually respectful.

They also share a good one-liner — “You never asked” — that eventually gets repeated, to gentle but telling effect.

That said, Sudeikis is an unexpected choice for this role; the longtime Saturday Night Live veteran is much better known for dumb, overly broad comedies like Hall Pass and Horrible Bosses. He can’t help showing a bit of that jokey behavior here, at times feeling less like a tough-as-nails coach, and more like a doting uncle.

Sudeikis’ performance certainly is enjoyable; it just doesn’t feel realistic.

As the months pass, Hopkins quietly undersells the actual degree of Owens’ jaw-dropping talent, until revealing it explosively toward the end of Owens’ freshman year, at a May 1935 Big Ten Conference meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During an exhilarating 45 minutes, Owens sets three world records and ties a fourth, in (respectively) the 220-yard sprint, the 220-yard low hurdles, the long jump, and the 100-yard dash.

The path to Berlin — an opportunity toward which Snyder has been grooming his young champion, from the very beginning — suddenly seems inevitable.

But not entirely. Owens’ calm determination notwithstanding, he’s still a young man capable of immaturity and bad choices; James deftly sells this duality, particularly when Owens succumbs to the temptation of another woman.

Shrapnel and Waterhouse set up some clever parallel structure with a sidebar issue involving the very question of America’s participation in the 1936 Olympic Games. The honor had been awarded to Germany prior to Hitler’s rise; now, since the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews and other so-called “mongrel races” has become public, considerable sentiment favors an American boycott of the games.

(I frankly find this surprising — pleasantly so — given our hostility toward the notion of accepting Jewish refugees, and our indifference toward assisting England and other Western European countries, once World War II began. It’s nice to see that at least some Americans found a conscience early on.)

The ultimate decision lies with the U.S. Olympic committee, which is caught between the conflicting views of industrialist and fervent Olympics booster Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who favors participation, and committee president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who recommends a boycott.

Hurt’s Mahoney is soft-spoken but passionate about the morality of the situation; Irons’ Brundage gruffly insists that sports should be above mere politics. History shows who won the argument, and it remains an open and controversial question (particularly since the United States did boycott Moscow’s 1980 summer Olympics, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 ... and haven’t recent events made that even more ironic!).

The story gets even more interesting once the Americans arrive in Berlin, and Owens gets his first glimpse of Germany’s prize long-jumper, Carl “Luz” Long (a lovely, earnest performance by David Kross). Despite what should be an obvious rivalry, compounded by the whole “master race” subtext, Luz is too much of a fair-minded sportsman not to be awed by Owens.

What subsequently occurs between Owens and Long is a fascinating tale of which I was wholly unaware (and yet another example of unexpected moral integrity).

These snapshots of Brundage, Mahoney and Luz aren’t likely to arouse much controversy; the same cannot be said of the way Shrapnel and Waterhouse portray (in)famous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (a tart and spunky performance by Carice van Houten), assigned here to “immortalize” the Third Reich by documenting the Games in what would become 1938’s Olympia.

Riefenstahl is given an ethically sanitized shading here, complete with defiance to German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat, quite chilling), which is likely to infuriate those who believe she was an unapologetic Nazi propagandist — and Hitler acolyte — who (for example) forced concentration camp occupants to appear in her films.

I like van Houten’s reading of Riefenstahl; it’s lovely to imagine that she did stand up to Goebbels, and admire Owens for the same reasons Luz did. But Hopkins isn’t strong enough — or creative enough — to sell this notion; it comes off feeling quite Pollyanna-ish.

Indeed, the same could be said of this entire film. It too often has a superficial and sanitized texture, presenting these historically significant events matter-of-factly, rather than granting us an opportunity to really know Owens. The wisdom of adhering to these two seminal years notwithstanding, it would be nice to know what Owens was like as a child, and particularly what made him gravitate toward track-and-field events ... which, it must be acknowledged, was quite unusual for a black American in the 1930s.

But Hopkins never strays very close to actual emotional gravitas. Perhaps that’s to be expected; just as Sudeikis is an odd choice as Larry Snyder, Hopkins has nothing in his résumé to suggest that he’d be right for this material. His prior work includes horror flicks (The Reaping), dumb sci-fi (the big-screen update of Lost in Space) and plenty of overly melodramatic TV (primarily 24 and House of Lies).

He hasn’t done anything of consequence about real people, except for 2004’s lighthearted Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

No surprise, then, that even Race’s most serious moments often end with a smile, or some hail-fellow-well-met encouragement. We don’t get a sense of what Owens faced after his Berlin triumph, once back in the United States, until a final scene when he and Ruth arrive at a posh hotel for his own tribute dinner.

Gritty dramatic authenticity likely wasn’t ever on the table. A film that boasts of its cooperation with Owens’ daughters, and the Jesse Owens Foundation, never could have been anything but a heartfelt valentine to its subject. In fairness, there’s nothing wrong with that ... as long as viewers are encouraged — particularly by the vintage photographs of the actual Owens, which appear during the closing credits — to dig deeper, and learn more about this authentic American hero. 

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