Eighty years, a world war and a civil rights revolution later, the story of Olympic track star Jesse Owens still packs a wallop.
Here was an African-American athlete who had to endure racism at home yet became the standard-bearer for the American Olympic team at the 1936 Berlin games, winning a record four gold medals.
Owens provided so conclusive a refutation of Nazi racial theories that Adolf Hitler left the stadium so he wouldn’t be photographed congratulating a black man.
As you’d expect, “Race,” the cleverly titled film about the ’36 games — is inspiring. But it is also insipid.
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When it’s dealing with the big issues of history and race, this film from director Stephen Hopkins (“The Ghost and the Darkness,” “Predator 2” and a ton of TV) generally gets it right, placing Owens’ achievements against a background of discrimination and political upheaval that makes them all the more impressive.
On the level of personal drama, though, “Race” feels like a standard-issue sports movie: not exactly wince-worthy, but cliched and superficial.
But, hey, you can’t be too disappointed in a film that offers as one of its characters the great German documentarist Leni Riefenstahl.
The screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse alternates between Owens’ personal story — that of a high school track star who wins a scholarship to Ohio State University, sets world records and aims for the Olympics — and the societal and political convulsions of those years.
In the private story line Jesse (“Selma’s” Stephan James) gets tough love from track coach Larry Snyder (KC’s Jason Sudeikis, in his first serious dramatic role). He becomes famous, falls for a fancy lady, then thinks better of it and seeks forgiveness from the hometown gal (Shanice Banton) by whom he has a young daughter.
But it’s pretty obvious that training montages and an unremarkable romance didn’t inspire the screenwriters. What lights their fire is the chance to re-create the world of the 1930s.
For example, at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee, member Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) squares off against chairman Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) over whether, by going to Berlin, American athletes are endorsing Nazism. The scene plays like a moral and intellectual battle of giants.
Our glimpses of Nazi Germany are grandiose (Hopkins filmed in the same stadium where Owens competed) and terrifying (Brownshirts evicting a Jewish family send a cataract of furniture and personal belongings crashing from a third-story window to the sidewalk).
The evil side of National Socialism is represented by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda chief, who is played by Barnaby Metschurat as an imperious, blank-faced human cobra.
And then there’s filmmaker Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten, the Red Woman on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), hired by Goebbels to document the games but flirting with trouble for her recognition that a black man was the world’s greatest athlete.
There are other nice touches torn from history, like the story of Carl “Luz” Long, the German long jumper who, beaten by Owens for the gold medal, defied his country’s racial policies by embracing his competitor in full view of the world.
Or the cruel fate that befell two Jewish runners removed from the American relay team after Brundage was, in effect, blackmailed by their German hosts.
This is all good, but it cannot compensate for the film’s squishy center. James bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Owens, and he has nailed the man’s train-piston running style. But the depiction comes perilously close to hagiography.
And the screenplay does no favors for Sudeikis, who in last fall’s “Sleeping With Other People” suggested he had the makings of a first-class romantic comedy lead.
Here he’s been given little to work with. There’s a suggestion that Snyder is an alcoholic who has alienated his family, but a lot of Sudeikis’ lines feel forced. He’s having to work too hard to find the character’s core, and at this point in his career he hasn’t yet developed the gravitas to compensate for anemic writing.
“Race” will undoubtedly raise awareness of Owens’ accomplishments and the travails he endured. That’s a good thing.
But one could wish for more substance in his personal story.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:14.
How Sudeikis got the part
“Race” director Stephen Hopkins says he knew Jason Sudeikis would be perfect to play track coach Larry Snyder.
When Sudeikis read for the role, Hopkins felt he was an “old-fashioned, James Stewart kind of film star,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “When I met Jason, he’s a sports fanatic, and he loves the psychology behind sports. It was exciting.”
Sudeikis says he felt a real connection to Snyder, whose dreams of Olympic gold in 1924 disappeared when he was severely injured. After graduating from Shawnee Mission West, Sudeikis attended Fort Scott Community College on a basketball scholarship. (Did you see all his three-pointers in last weekend’s NBA All-Star celebrity game?) But he drove the 40 miles back to Kansas City on weekends to perform improv at the ComedySportz Theatre.
Eventually, he gave up hoops and college, headed to Chicago and pursued his comedy career. If he had stayed in college? He says he could be teaching “drama and coaching basketball at some school in Kansas. I still might, for all we know. It’s not lost on me.”
Next for Sudeikis: the Garry Marshall ensemble comedy “Mother’s Day” (April 29), and he supplies the voice of Red in the animated “Angry Birds Movie” (May 20).