I’ve heard the name: Jesse Owens before, of course, but I didn’t know anything else about him apart from the fact he competed in Germany and was still treated badly upon his return home to the States. This biopic goes over the course of his journey in a great way to champion the brilliance of an athlete that I’m glad to know more about now.
Jesse Owens (Stephan James) manages to enrol in Ohio State University and there he grabs the eye of former athlete and coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Owens is a natural at running but must hone in on his starts, leading him to grow and get the chance to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It’s not that simple though as the world is looking at Germany to clean it’s racist act and Owens becomes the centre of that issue.
Stephen Hopkins certainly shows a passion for his subject with this film. From 1933 to ’36 we see the life and times of Owens with a good eye. It may not always be directed as swiftly as Owens himself runs but there’s enough detail in here for the athletic/Olympic uninitiated like myself to mull over and find interesting. What Hopkins does well is build up to the Berlin games in an absorbing way, so when we finally reach the towering entrance of the stadium we feel both in awe and disgust at the right wing views of the organisers.
It’s certainly true to say that though the scenes away from the race track slow down the pace of this 134 minute movie, it opened my eyes to the dark choices made for America to keep in the Olympics. The U.S committees and shadowy snippets of propaganda motivations cast a necessary evil over the sporting feel of this biography feature. The end of the movie has the expected screen subtitles giving more information about the history, one fact about German athlete Carl ‘Luz’ Long is shocking but you’d expect nothing else sadly.
‘Race’ bursts into it’s stride in the moments before the Olympics begin. So as we see Jesse Owens deliberating over whether to take part, his qualifying day and the numerous moments we see Joseph Goebbels squirm because his games aren’t going the way he hoped, which brought me great satisfaction every time it shows his face in close up, dealing with the brilliance of Owens overshadowing his Nazi dreamt ceremony and idea that Aryan supremacy rang true. There isn’t exactly exhilaration to be had during the 1936 Olympics sequence but it does bring a sense of pride, even for a non American, the sight of Owens triumphing time and time again is a joy to behold for his sport, his country and his race.
Stephan James does a great deal to ensure this movie keeps interest from the start to the finishing line. He tears up the track and shuttles through the film with a passion and quiet heroism in his performance. Jason Sudeikis as a mostly comic actor does really well as the coach figure which I guess is made up for cinematic treatment, but it’s worthwhile as he and James do well together in that ‘sports movie coach/student’ cliché. Carice van Houten ditches the red hair and dons a German accent as propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl, who made the documentary ‘Olympia’. She plays the German motivated visionary well but shows another side when hearing the twisted ideals of Goebbels, who is captured in a seriously chilling light by Barnaby Metschurat, his mere presence evokes a cold wave of fear.
It’s not stunning or exactly thrilling, but the subject matter holds up to keep your interest peaked in what was definitely a shady part of world history mixed with the spectacle of the biggest sporting event. There’s more going on with Owens then there is about the race issues and politics of the time but this film has told me something and made me want to learn more.