Speedy youngster Jesse Owens (Stephan James) has a shot at competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But an injury, romantic trouble and Nazi machinations all threaten his path to glory.
The story Race tells is a significant one: black athlete Jesse Owens boldly competes at the Nazi-hosted Olympics, despite animosity from the Heil Hitler-ing crowds and, indeed, many racist Americans. But for a film about a sprinter, it plays out more like a leisurely jog. It feels as if the filmmakers were awed by the subject matter; what they’ve made is stuffed with incident, as if they were afraid to leave anything out. While there’s plenty of good material here, it could have done with a sharper focus.
Stephan James delivers an excellent lead performance, exuding quiet dignity and laser-focused ambition.
That applies particularly to the first half. Detailing Owens’ poverty-stricken background, his troubled relationship with a beautician and his training regime, it rambles around with little momentum. Stephan James, a last-minute replacement for a Star Wars-bound John Boyega, delivers an excellent lead performance, exuding quiet dignity and laser-focused ambition, while Jason Sudeikis is decent in a rare serious role as his coach. It’s Sport Movie Clichés a-go-go, though: this is the kind of film where it rains during sad moments, where letter-writing montages are accompanied by earnest voiceovers, where everyone talks in taglines.
Fortunately, the tension ratchets up considerably as the Nazis enter the picture. A fascinating subplot sees a hotelier (Jeremy Irons) sent to negotiate the Games’ planning with Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat, masterfully creepy). And once the event begins, the movie kicks up a gear — Chariots Of Führer if you will. It delves into the making of Olympia, the propaganda documentary filmed by Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), and the political tussles behind the scenes: Owens is at one point snubbed by Hitler with the very lamest of excuses: “Traffic.”
It’s here in the final lap that Race finds its stride, with memorable moments (Jesse’s entrance into the stadium is brilliantly shot) and some heart-stirring sequences. It’s just a shame it meanders around so much en route.
A great true-life story is hobbled by some hoary screenwriting, but the tense second half makes going the distance just about worth it.