by Tony Medley
Runtime 134 minutes.
OK for children.
In what was labeled
the 1968 Olympics Trials (they weren’t; it was a fraud, but I didn’t
find out about that until after they ended) held at the Los Angeles
Coliseum, I was in charge of arranging for transportation for the
athletes. One day at the Track and Field events I saw Jesse Owens
sitting by himself in the stands, so I went over to talk with him. He
was a soft spoken, happy, extremely nice guy.
That’s not exactly
what you get from this film. 1968 was 32 years after he won four gold
medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but I don’t think that a man’s
personality changes much throughout his lifetime. In this film, Jesse
(Stephan James, who doesn’t look a thing like Jesse), is a pretty much
unsmiling but polite young man. One thing the real Jesse was not, was
unsmiling. In fact, the single attribute everyone took away from seeing
him was his wonderful smile.
The big question I
have about films that use people’s real names and represent everything
in them as fact is whether or not they can be believed. Half of this
film is about the two years leading up to Owens’ participation in the
Olympics and the other half about the Olympics themselves. There’s no
way of knowing about the veracity of the first half, but as to the
second half, the facts are there for anyone to discover.
Like Chariots of
Fire (1981), another film I didn’t like, the athletic events are
unrealistically staged. Apparently director Stephen Hopkins has never
been to a track meet because he has the broad jump being the center of
all activity. But in a track meet there are events going on all over the
place simultaneously. There are races taking place while people are
broad jumping. People are throwing the shot put, the javelin; they are
pole vaulting and high jumping. But if you were to believe this film,
the broad jump was taking place on center stage while all other activity
stopped, and being broadcast, too, as if there were nothing else
Maybe you can give
the filmmakers a pass on this because the movie is about, after all,
Jesse winning gold medals and setting Olympic records, one of them in
the broad jump. The lack of verisimilitude just rubbed me the wrong way.
The film also makes
it appear that Jesse was the first black athlete to win a gold medal
with whom Hitler failed to shake hands. This is not accurate. The day
before Owens won the gold medal in the 100 meters, black American
Cornelius Johnson (Johnson and Owens were just two of 17 black American
athletes on the team) won the Gold Medal in the high jump and Hitler
left before shaking his hand. But the New York Times headlined
Owens’ snub, making it a cause célèbre, while ignoring the one to
When Hitler left
without shaking Owens’ hand, the film shows Avery Brundage (Jeremy
Irons, who looks like Brundage except for the moustache Irons wears; why
did they have him wearing a moustache when Brundage did not have one in
1936?), the head of the AAU and the U. S. Olympic Committee, berating
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels
(Barnaby Metschurat, in a chilling performance) and saying that Hitler
either shakes everybody’s hand or nobody’s. This is also false. It was
IOC Henri de Baillet-Latour who
Goebbels that Hitler congratulate all or none, not Brundage. It’s
mystifying that Baillet-Latour does not appear in the film.
This inaccuracy is
consistent with the film’s pandering treatment of Brundage, who many
feel is one of the true villains of the International Olympics movement.
In this very same Olympics Brundage banned American swimmer Eleanor
Holm, who took the ship with the team to Berlin, from participating
because of a personal grudge against her, alleging it was because of her
use of alcohol on the ship, which would not have been a disqualifying
There is also no
mention of the fact that while most of the teams parading into the
stadium in the opening ceremonies gave Hitler the Olympic Salute that
was almost identical to the Nazi salute, the U. S. team did not do so.
There is just a lot
about this film that brings doubt to my mind not only because it changes
facts, but because it ignores so many interesting things.
So is the first half
of the film to be believed? Since there are so many inaccuracies in the
second half, I take much of the first half with a grain of salt.
It is so long and,
for me, uninvolving, that a good editor, in addition to adding accuracy
to the film, could have cut out a lot of the first hour and packed into
the film some of the things I have mentioned that would capture the
ambience of these Games, making it a much better entertainment, rather
than concentrating on making Owens look like an unhappy person
throughout, which I don’t believe he was. In fact, his triumphs on the
track are barely shown. If you blink you’ll miss them.
Despite all this,
Jason Sudeikis gives a fine performance as Owens’ coach at Ohio State,
Larry Snyder. But Jessie Owens deserves a better movie than this about
his life, circa 1934-36. In short, it’s too long, too slow, has clumsy
recreations of the sporting events, has an actor who doesn’t reflect
Owens’ pleasing personality, and replaces facts with Hollywood fiction.