Unimaginative effort nearly disqualifies Jesse Owens biopic
Jesse Owens’ four-Gold-Medal performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin struck a historic blow for both American opposition to the rising tide of Nazism and also for the scores of African-American athletes denied opportunities back home. It’s stunning (and yet it’s not) that Owens’ accomplishments have never been depicted in a feature film. (There was an unremarkable TV version in the 1980s.)
It’s unfortunate then that the new cookie cutter biopic, Race, has been offered as a vehicle to tell such a compelling story of athletic prowess and perseverance amid conflicting world politics. It’s fortunate, on the other hand, that the core narrative eventually transcends the staggeringly unimaginative filmmaking.
Virtually every plot step and dialogue exchange in the screenplay feels as worn out as a pair of old track shoes. Anyone who has seen a few biographical films could predict each moment before it occurs. One could also easily mouth the hackneyed dialogue in unison with the actors.
At least the actors gave it the ol’ college try. Newcomer Stephan James, who also shone as a young John Lewis in last year’s Selma, commands the screen as Owens. James captures both the grace and grit of Owens as he leaves his Cleveland family roots to study and compete at Ohio State University. Of course, in the early 1930s, a black athlete—even an undisputed champion such as Owens—is destined to face jeering hostility and socially sanctioned mistreatment. Race trots out those incidents in such workmanlike fashion that the injustices, hobbled by cliché, lose their dramatic impact.
Jason Sudeikis surprises in a rare serious role as Owens’ OSU coach, Larry Snyder. A comic actor known for his stint on Saturday Night Live and movie comedies We’re The Millers and Horrible Bosses, Sudeikis does his earnest best as a character who may accurately reflect the real Snyder but still feels like a tired Hollywood convention. There are solid performances in supporting roles by Shanice Banton as Owens’ fiancé and late wife Ruth, Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, who was head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten as an unconvincingly sympathetic Leni Riefenstahl, who, under Hitler’s imprimatur, filmed the ’36 Olympics.
Though the evocative period settings and cinematography delight the eye, Stephen Hopkins’ direction is plodding. And Rachel Portman’s uninspired score lacks any subtlety whatsoever. Every scene involving Nazi characters is accompanied by jangling dissonance and thunderous chords that virtually scream “villain theme music.”
Ultimately, the inherent drama of Owens’ amazing accomplishments in Berlin overpowers the pedestrian efforts of the filmmakers, but one can’t help but wonder how much more effective and entertaining Race might have been in more original hands.
The latest entry in the seemingly endless stream of superhero films from the Marvel movie factory breaks no filmmaking ground either, but it is salvaged by the snarky rhythms of its protagonist. Deadpool breaks the fourth wall as it cheekily comments about itself. One could take issue with the movie trying to have it both ways: slavishly re-creating every predictable plot step and trope of superhero movies while also mocking them. But the blood-drenched mayhem just rolls on, the violence and gore somewhat leavened by the humor. Ryan Reynolds charms as the roguish super-antihero (or is that anti-superhero?).
No great art here, but it is great fun!