by George Wolf
Make way for the cliche train, here comes another sports biopic….well, not so fast. Race manages to break convention in subtle but important ways, bringing a graceful spotlight to the heroic story of Jesse Owens, perhaps the greatest track and field athlete in history.
Stephan Janes (John Lewis in Selma) delivers a breakout lead performance as Owens, who won four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Transcending the games, Owens personified the folly of Nazi delusion as the Fuhrer himself looked on. This convergence of sport and history makes Owens’s story fertile ground for hyperbolic melodrama, but Race works best when it presses least.
Director Stephan Hopkins (Predator 2, The Reaping) seems properly motivated by the inevitable comparisons to similar biopics, specifically 42. He effectively differentiates Race at critical junctures, none better than the moment Owens’s track coach at Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), is lecturing him on the need to ignore the hateful racial catcalls.
Rather than the manufactured wisdom of another locker room sermon barked from teacher to pupil, Hopkins frames the scene as an active choice by Owens himself, and the result is all the more human and satisfying. Though not every exchange works quite as well, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse keep the “white savior” leanings from overtaking Snyder’s character, and a fine dramatic debut from Sudeikis doesn’t hurt.
Hopkins delivers athletic sequences that are often thrilling (the wonderfully panoramic set piece when Owens enters Berlin stadium may elicit goosebumps), but Race doesn’t shrink from the responsibilities implicit in its title.
The pressure Owens felt to boycott the games, and the racism impervious to gold medals both reach you without undue manipulation. Even more impressive is the nuance the film brings to the cozy relationship between nationalism, hypocrisy and oppression.
Though historians may quibble with the details, an engaging support narrative emerges as Olympic Committee advisor Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurant) and German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) dance around contrasting personal agendas. All three actors are stellar, fleshing out another reminder of the watershed nature of the period.
The life of Jesse Owens was marked by courage and achievement at a crossroads of world history. Weaving those elements together in an effective dramatic context is a tricky endeavor, but one that Race gets mostly right.