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Race (5/10)

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 happening.

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 Johnson.

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 German 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 President of IOC Henri de Baillet-Latour who demanded of 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 activity.

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.