A heroic real-life sports landmark runs out of creative steam long before the finish line.
Let’s not confuse the inspiring story of Jesse Owens, the runner whose four gold-medal wins at Berlin’s 1936 Olympics infuriated the Nazi regime, with this flat-footed sports drama that misses multiple opportunities to be explosive. As a convincingly athletic Owens (“Don’t think. It’s not what you’re good at,” the rising star’s wife says), lead actor Stephan James has little to do in the early stretches but be resilient and mild. He’s never given the chance to rail, even privately, against the racism Owens encountered at Ohio State University.
Because Race ladles on the locker-room hate speech, it feels like a serious movie (as the obvious title would imply). But director Stephen Hopkins mines virtually no tension from the relationship between Owens and his white trainer, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, distractingly off-period and smarmy), who insists that his young talent “work to win.” On the track, Owens is his own man, but his subservience to a white-dominated administrative structure could have been made sharper and more timely: Too quickly, Synder goes from “sir” to “coach.”
By the time we get to Berlin’s massive arena—re-created in a Gladiator–like swirl of roaring digital crowds—Race knows it has an ace up its sleeve. The sporting events can’t help but be thrilling, even if they’re over too soon. Yet certain ironies are softened for the tenderest audience members: Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) gets a glowing makeover as a defiant truth-teller, while Hitler’s infamous snub of Owens is presented as fact, when the real Owens is said to have carried around a photo of the two of them shaking hands until his 1980 death. Why not include that controversial detail, building out the shameful reality of FDR’s refusal to extend his own congratulatations? Race is the most timid, lackadaisical movie that could have been made out of potentially classic material.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Carice van Houten