Some real-life events couldn’t be more right for movies, and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics was one of them. In a compressed period of days, everything good about sports came into collision with everything evil in politics. All the repulsive villains in the upcoming global catastrophe gathered together in a single location, only to find their aspirations thwarted by a single man, the American track and field athlete Jesse Owens.
The story of Owens and the Olympics is, in fact, so tailor-made for drama that the only creative risk is overdoing it, by making Owens into a saint or the United States spotless, just to emphasize the contrast with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Fortunately, “Race” doesn’t take that bait. Instead the movie gives us a complex picture of an America that had its own racial problems in 1936, as well as a flesh-and-blood portrait of Owens that leaves room for heroism but that also shows his lusts and temptations and a star-athlete’s ego.
The one syllable title – “Race” – embodies much, the races Owens had to win, the racism that he had to endure and ignore at home; and the master-race madness that had infected a civilized European nation. To succeed, Owens had to match his physical discipline with a moral and emotional discipline almost as rare as his athletic gifts – and even more rare in a man only 22 years old.
“Race” takes time to make audiences feel the courage that Owens’ feats required, particularly in the simple yet remarkable sequence in which Owens enters the Berlin stadium on the day he is to compete. First he is silhouetted against the packed stands, in a beautiful shot that seems purely heroic. But then the camera stays on him, as he walks across the field, the crowd encircling him like the whole world shrunk down into a single space, like the judgment of history hovering and breathing on all sides. He sits down to tie his shoes, and the solitariness of the act catches you: How do you tie your shoes for the biggest 10 seconds of your life? How do you tie your shoes when one-tenth of a second can be the difference between legend and failure?
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As the movie shows, the lead-up to that moment of history was fraught, and anything might have derailed it. The story begins with Owens going off to Ohio State, where he has to ignore the taunts of the all-white football team and figure out how to send money back home. There’s a terrific use of sound in a locker room scene, in which Owens’ track coach (a warm Jason Sudeikis) teaches the young Owens how to block out crowd noise and stay focused on his goal.
Even as Owens was training, there was considerable controversy over whether the United States should even participate in a Nazi-run Olympics. The movie shows how Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), of the Olympic Committee, went to Berlin and bluntly told Josef Goebbels and other Nazi officials how they had to clean up their act if they wanted Americans to compete. Brundage is presented as a flawed but strong figure and is one of the movie’s most interesting characters, though the film glosses over the real Brundage’s own anti-Semitism.
Stephan James, who played John Lewis in “Selma,” makes a satisfying and dimensional Owens. He copies his running style (lots of short steps, with very little hang-time in the air) and plays the man, not the legend. His Owens is young and vulnerable, distracted by sex and fame – he is known as the world’s fastest man even before Berlin – and subject to outside pressure. It’s amazing, the power of drama to make audiences worry about an outcome that is part of the historical record, but “Race” accomplishes just that.
Director Stephen Hopkins doesn’t clean up the past, not even literally. Windows go unwashed, and the world of 1936 looks real and lived in. Part of the movie’s pleasure is that of time travel, the ability to see an earlier era and the people who lived in it. Carice van Houten is a fascinating and believable Leni Riefenstahl, wary in her dealings with the Nazi hierarchy, but fierce as a director in pursuit of art. Yet, strangely, little care was taken in the choice of a Hitler (Adrian Zwicker), who has the wrong haircut and is at least 10 years too young.
But “Race” gets the big things right, and in the story of the Berlin Olympics, nothing is bigger than the instant friendship that blossomed between Owens and his chief competitor in the long jump, Luz Long, who was German but no Nazi. Those brief scenes linger in the mind and are worthy of Long’s own words, written to Owens just a few years later, when World War II had already started: “Someday find my son. … Tell him how things can be between men on this Earth.”
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and language
Starring: Stephan James, Jeremy Irons and Jason Sudeikis
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins