It’s conventional wisdom that winning is not the most important thing. Giving your all, having fun, playing with honor, or just having the guts to show up should take higher priority. And most times that’s true! But one of the strengths of Race – the new film about how African-American track and fielder Jesse Owens humiliated the Nazis’ racist ideology by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics – is the way it subtly acknowledges that in this case, winning was pretty damn important.
Late in the film, the Nazis use their influence with the Olympic administration to force the American track and field team to sideline Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), its two Jewish members. The coaches name Owens (Stephan James) as one of their replacements in the relay competition. But Owens refuses unless Glickman and Stoller themselves okay the decision. It’s an enraging moment, but that night Glickman and Stoller visit Owens in his room and tell him to take their place on one condition: that he win.
There in the heart of Berlin, with the whole world watching, those men acutely felt the responsibility to drive Hitler’s Aryan ideology into the ground. And in this instance, the way to do that was brute victory. Watching those scenes play out, it’s impossibly painful to imagine what it would have been like had they lost.
The script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse is attuned to this looming sense of historic moment, but it brings it on subtly. Race begins with Owens leaving his working class family in Cleveland to attend Ohio State University, and the opening act is a pretty standard sports movie affair. Owens is already an accomplished athlete, and is discovered by coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudekis), in need of a win after a long dry spell. We get the training scenes, and shots of Snyder clocking Owens with a look of astonishment, and then some mild drama as Owens earns some local fame. He has a girlfriend (Shanice Banton) with a daughter back in Cleveland, but does not lack for temptation from other admirers.
Then word arrives that America will participate in the Olympic games in Berlin. Olympic administrators Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) battle it out over the decision – Mahoney thinks American participation would give cover to Nazi ideology. But it’s far more personal and rending when an African-American congressman and representative of the NAACP visits Owens and his family and asks him not to participate. It’s a difficult choice precisely because both paths are equally justifiable. Ultimately Owens chooses to compete for deeply personal reasons – running is what he does and what he knows – but the irony is that choice renders the historical burden of winning the games nearly overwhelming.
Director Stephen Hopkins – a workhorse who has churned out titles like Predator 2 and The Ghost and the Darkness – does not push his story to hold more meaning that it can. He has some fun with his screen fonts and the occasional odd edit. But for the most part he plays it straight, delivering a standard but well-put-together visual experience, complete with crisp imagery and rich earth tones. Hopkins is probably at his best in the racing scenes: he uses frame rates, camera movement and placement to present Owens’ running not so much as an act of joy or passion, but as a desperate release of incredible power.
James’ sympathetic portrayal of Owens is similar. He’s determined, unassuming and decent, and a bit addled by his newfound fame. But also possessed of deep reserves of strength. As Snyder, Sudekis doesn’t overplay his chance for a dramatic turn, delivering a character who is whimsical and fair-minded, but also deeply committed to a return to the Olympics. There are several scenes where Jesse has to deal with the racism of other athletes on campus, and Snyder’s advice is conventional: ignore them and focus on the game. This works well enough until the question of whether to attend the Olympics pops up, which delivers that scene – ubiquitous in the previews – when Owens reminds Snyder that he’s white, and thus has the convenience of such pablum. The best part of the moment actually comes after, when we watch Sudekis wordlessly play Snyder’s realization that he needs to swallow his ego.
Other moments that stand out: when German athlete Carl Long (David Kross) takes his loss to Owens with incredible grace. Astonished by his rival’s abilities, Long encourages Owens to take a victory lap around the stadium after the long jump, effectively guaranteeing the Nazis would send him to the front once the war broke out. Later, there is a tough and quiet scene where Long tells Owens, “My country is going insane.” Jeremy Irons also gives an interesting sketch of Brundage, an oily man who manages to be both genuinely morally outraged by the Nazis and also willing to take bribes from them. Then there’s Baranaby Metshurat, who gives us a creepy, quiet and reptilian Joseph Goebbels, pulling the strings in the background, and increasingly outraged by Owens’ victories.
Carice van Houtem (who you may recognize from Game of Thrones) shows up as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who made Triumph of the Will, and later turned the games into the movie Olympiad. Race is pretty sympathetic to her – she’s a fellow filmmaker, I guess – and there’s a late scene of camaraderie between her and Owens that almost certainly stretches the bounds of believability.
But overall Race is a solid effort by all involved. It doesn’t reinvent the well-used wheel of the Important Sports Movie, but it does well within its ambition. And it’s willing to live within the unbearable choices, tensions, and what-ifs of its particular historical moment without trying to make sense of them or deliver any final answers.