1936 Olympics, Athletics, Biography, Carice van Houten, Drama, Four gold medals, Germany, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Owens, Larry Snyder, Leni Riefenstahl, Nazis, Racism, Review, Stephan James, Stephen Hopkins, True story
D: Stephen Hopkins / 134m
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins, Tony Curran, Barnaby Metschurat, Chantel Riley, William Hurt, Glynn Turman
Made with the support of Jesse Owens’ family, Race follows Owens as he enrols at Ohio State University in 1933, meets athletics coach Larry Snyder who teaches him how to be a better sprinter, and on through until his appearance at the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. It’s a powerful story, and Owens’ performance at the Games is legendary… which makes Race all the more surprising for how tame it is, and how unsure it is in what it wants to say.
As biopics go, it’s all standard stuff. We see Owens (James) as a young man saying goodbye to his sweetheart (and mother of his child), Ruth (Banton) before he heads off to Ohio State University. Once there, he encounters a predictable amount of systemic and endemic racism from pupils and staff alike, but concentrates on what he can do on the running track. Attracting the attention of athletics coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis), Owens dispels any doubts about his abilities by matching the fastest recorded time in the 100 metre dash, and doing it as casually as if it were just “one of those things”. It’s not long before Snyder is talking about the 1936 Olympics, and Owens representing his country in Nazi Germany.
Before then there’s the small matter of the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Owens’ set three world records and tied a fourth in under an hour, his marriage to Ruth, and the political manoeuvrings that saw the US agree to compete in the 1936 Olympics once their envoy, construction magnate Avery Brundage (Irons), had negotiated terms with Dr Goebbels (Metschurat). With these things in place, Owens and the US team arrive in Berlin and begin preparations for the Games. Once they begin, it doesn’t take Owens long to disprove the Nazis’ idea of Aryan supremacy. He wins four gold medals: in the 100 metres, the 200 metres, the broad (long) jump, and the 4×100 metre relay (which was ironic as he replaced a Jewish runner who was dropped thanks to last-minute political expediency). History is made, and in the most bittersweet of circumstances.
Race covers all this, and more, but fails to make it interesting for the viewer, instead falling back on the kind of biopic clichés that were old back in the era Owens was breaking track records like they were nothing of importance. It also tries to cram in too much in the way of subplots, particularly in the way that Leni Riefenstahl (van Houten) goes about filming the Games, and often in defiance of Goebbels and his indifference to her efforts. Riefenstahl’s presence in the movie is surprising, as the movie could have worked well enough without her. Instead we’re treated to Riefenstahl acting as an unofficial interpreter/translator for Goebbels, and van Houten struggling to look intimidated when necessary. Riefenstahl keeps cropping up, and after a while you begin to wonder if she was as involved as the movie makes her out to be.
The effect of all these subplots and extraneous storylines is to (almost) make Owens a secondary character in his own biopic. And one unfortunate romantic dalliance aside, Owens is given the kind of never-do-wrong attributes that hype the legend instead of portraying the man behind the legend. As Owens, James is confident enough, but doesn’t seem able to go beyond the script’s insistence on making Owens as unaffectedly noble as possible, and in some respects, operating in a vacuum that leaves him unaware of the political and racial maelstrom going on around him once he’s in Germany. This leads to an awkward scene where Snyder wanders around Berlin and just happens to see a group of Jews being rounded up at the end of a back street. There are other moments where the era’s ugly racism is pushed to the forefront, but strangely, there’s more of it on display in the US than there is in Berlin.
By failing to make the inherent drama of Owens’ participation, well… dramatic, the movie never fully engages the audience, or allows it to become emotionally invested in the man’s achievements (although the focus is rightly on the Olympics, his achievement at Ann Arbor carries more resonance). Left with little to identify with beyond the casual attempts at characterisation made by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s banal script, the viewer has no choice but to sit back and hope that the movie remembers he or she is there at some point, but without any guarantees that this will happen.
The cast do their best but the odds are stacked against them. Sudeikis dials down the comic charm he uses elsewhere but can do little with a role that requires him to take a back seat once Berlin rolls around, and which seems there to mainly provide Owens with motivational pep talks when he needs them. Irons is all capitalist swagger as the man who demanded superficial concessions from Nazi Germany in return for the US’s taking part in the Games, while as mentioned above, van Houten enjoys a bigger role as Riefenstahl than it’s likely she had historically. Of the rest of the cast, only Metschurat stands out as an icy, thuggish-looking Goebbels who wouldn’t look out of character if he was wearing braces and Doctor Martens boots.
Attempting to make a cohesive whole out of so many disparate strands, director Stephen Hopkins instead places a similar feel and importance on all of them, leading to a movie that moves seamlessly from one scene to the next without ever rising or falling in terms of the low-key drama, or tinkering with the tone of the movie. Hopkins has had a varied career, but while this isn’t his first biopic – he also made The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) – this is his first “prestige” picture, and he falls back on the kind of easy choices that a first-timer might make, and in doing so, fails to charge the movie with the kind of energy that would draw in an audience and keep them glued to their seats.
Rating: 5/10 – not quite an also-ran, but near enough, Race plays liberally with the connotations of its title but is ultimately too lightweight in its execution to be a pointed, and poignant, reflection of the period it covers; Owens was an exceptional athlete, and while the movie does acknowledge this, what it doesn’t do is raise its own game to match that of its subject.