Friday, February 23, 2018
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Review: Jesse Owens biopic 'Race' has the start but not the finish

While coaching high school track and field in a previous lifetime, I'd caution runners against wasted motion, especially in blink-and-lose sprints like Olympic legend Jesse Owens used to run.

A wayward arm motion, a slightly sideways stride, anything taking momentum away from a direct route to the finish line, can make a difference. The distance becomes a tiny bit longer with each step, which adds up. Shorter is faster and likelier to succeed.

Those running tips came to mind while watching Race, based on Owens' historic performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — plus a few topics that should've gotten their own movie. Like a struggling sprinter, Stephen Hopkins' film suffers from wasted motion, too much going on.

It's the difference between a merely competent movie and one justifying more discussion of Hollywood's commitment to reward diversity. Race has several elements of an Oscar contender: a true story, Nazi historical, socially relevant and an African-American theme more crucial to Hollywood now than ever.

So, what do Hopkins and his screenwriters do with this material? Cast an actor short on charisma (or perhaps written that way) as Owens, flip the script to give his (white) coach equal time and fully explore the Olympics' propaganda crisis of staging games in Berlin while Adolf Hitler was rounding up minorities.

These topics are interesting — well, not the coach — but the biopic Owens has deserved for decades should be about him. The rest is wasted motion.

Stephan James, who played civil rights icon John Brown in Selma, has a suitably athletic physique to portray one of the finest athletes ever. Neither James nor the screenplay ever get a bead on Owens, other than a passage dedicated to his nearly shirking responsibility as a parent. Owens' personality changes from scene to scene, not necessarily due to the athlete's complexity but at the plot's convenience.

Race begins with Owens preparing to enroll at Ohio State University, where struggling coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) immediately sees an Olympic champion. The campus isn't a refuge from discrimination, as Owens and other black track athletes suffer epithets from the segregated football team and its head coach.

Sudeikis is to be commended for stretching and consoled for tearing an over-acting muscle. His career so far is solely built upon comical insincerity, making any lunges for being taken seriously — a drunken rage, choked-up memory — tough to swallow. Sudeikis can't shake off his modernity, so a period piece isn't a smart start toward being taken seriously.

The most interesting movie within Hopkins' movie is directed by Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten), the Third Reich's documentarian whose footage from the '36 games cemented Owens' posterity. Riefenstahl's commitment to art over politics runs afoul of Hitler's right-hand monster Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), who also turns Olympics president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) into a stooge.

Those backroom negotiations are worthy of a separate movie, rather than intruding upon Owens'. Race has the tools necessary for greatness and not enough heart to make it happen.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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