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A fairly well-run Race'

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Jesse Owens biopic a decent effort

I'm a sucker for inspirational movies. I'm also a sucker for sports movies. So an inspirational sports movie is definitely in my wheelhouse particularly if it is also a period piece that tells a true story.

All the pieces are there for 'Race,' a film based on the story of the many obstacles faced by track star Jesse Owens during his rise to fame that culminated in an historic performance for reasons athletic and otherwise at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. While it is a bit uneven in spots, the overall effect is an engaging, compelling story that certainly warrants telling to a new generation.

The year is 1933. Stephan James ('Selma') is Owens, a young man in Ohio who has just gotten accepted to Ohio State University on a track scholarship. Jesse is leaving behind a large family that counts on him for support a family that includes girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton, TV's 'Lost Girl') and a young daughter.

When he arrives at OSU, he is almost immediately confronted by track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, 'Tumbledown'), a former OSU star dealing with the demands of the job. Snyder recognizes the athletic brilliance of Owens and promises to help turn the young man into a world record holder and Olympic medal winner.

However, the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany has led to some questions about America's participation in the 1936 Olympic Games, set to be held in Berlin. As part of a fact-finding mission, an official named Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, TV's 'The Borgias') goes to Germany to determine just how egregious the Nazis have become. A deal is brokered to ease the consciences of the opposition back in the U.S.

Owens becomes a national sensation, at one point setting three world records and tying a fourth at a single meet in the space of less than an hour. However, his newfound fame is not without cost he makes some mistakes that nearly cost him both his career and his family. He is also being pulled by multiple factions, each with their own motivations regarding whether or not he will compete for the United States in Germany.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to Jesse Owens himself. It is his race only he can choose if he will run it.

The story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics is a familiar one; it is a major piece of not only sports history, but of civil rights history. The dramatic possibilities of such a narrative are wide-ranging and ripe with potential. As far as meeting that potential, 'Race' has a few false starts, but it ultimately more hit than miss.

There are two primary issues with the film. The first is the presence of the Olympic committee subplot. While I understand that the actions of Brundage and others were important in their own right and the story lent context to the plight of Owens and other African-American athletes the truth is that there was an almost jarring disconnect between those scenes and the rest of the film. Another path to providing the necessary backstory would have been welcome.

The other is the treatment of Owens himself. The narrative pays lip service to the more difficult moments of his life, but there's an inescapable smoothness. Most if not all negatives are largely glossed over. The end result is a hero who lacks complexity a characteristic that the real-life Jesse Owens possessed in ample supply.

However, there's plenty to recommend 'Race.' The performances are pretty solid. Any depth that we see in Owens springs largely from James he breathes life into the role and complicates a man that the script portrays much more simply. Sudeikis is excellent as the hard-drinking and demanding Snyder, infusing his lines with a snappiness that is reminiscent of a previous era. The dynamic between the two is excellent, and while Sudeikis occasionally flies too far over the top, the duo's chemistry makes it all work. Irons is good (even if he does feel unnecessary), while Banton, William Hurt ('Winter's Tale') and especially Carice van Houten (TV's 'Game of Thrones') as infamous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl all offer strong performances.

Director Stephen Hopkins seems most at ease with more kinetic sequences; the athletic competition scenes are by far the most engaging. Hopkins does a fair job minimizing the issues with the script, allowing for an end result that entertains despite a few flaws.

'Race' isn't the great movie that it might have been. However, anyone who ever found the tale of Jesse Owens compelling will be engaged by this film. Sports movie enthusiasts will likely enjoy it as well. It might not be a gold medal winner, but it definitely can take a spot on the podium.

[3.5 out of 5]


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