Jesse Owens was one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. Unfortunately, “Race” – the new movie about his life and his participation in the controversial 1936 Olympics – doesn’t live up to that greatness.
Every year, a plethora of sports movies hit theaters, but it’s hard to make a movie as exciting or unpredictable as the real thing.
“Race,” which stars relative newcomer Stephan James (“Selma”) as Jesse Owens, does a fine job of telling the story surrounding the 1936 Olympics, but it never rises to the level of greatness. There are no moments in the film that will give viewers goose bumps, a lump in their throat or come close to bringing a tear to their eye – which is a shame given the subject matter.
“Race” does, however, serves as a good history lesson about Owens for younger viewers unfamiliar with his story and as nice flashback for audiences who do remember the athlete.
The film also touches on the relationship between Nazi Olympic organizers and Avery Bundrage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, who vehemently opposed boycotting the games. Bundrage is played by Jeremy Irons, who does a terrific job in the role, portraying a man never completely comfortable working with the Nazis, yet comfortable enough to strike up a business deal with them.
It has long been rumored that Bundrage was asked by Nazi organizers to remove Marty Glickman – who would later become a legendary sports broadcaster – and Sam Stoller, the only two Jewish members of the U.S. track and field team, from the 400-meter relay team that was favored to win gold, in order to spare the Nazis from losing to Jewish athletes. The film works around those scenes safely but does show how difficult it was for Owens to decide whether to run the race as a replacement for his Jewish teammates.
Some of the film’s better scenes come early on when Bundrage and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, make their case to their colleagues on whether or not the U.S. should boycott the 1936 games. Hurt gives a subtle performance that pairs perfectly with Irons’ intensity.
But the real stars of the show are James and Jason Sudeikis, who plays against type as Ohio State University track coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and subsequent comedic film roles, but he handles his duties nicely in this film. Sudeikis and Jameshsvr have good chemistry throughout the film. Their one-on-one scenes represent some of the better parts of the film and really give a nice insight into the relationship between Snyder and Owens.
Where “Race” falls short is in the actual sports scenes. Track and field may not be the most exciting sport on camera, especially because Owens won most of his events so handily, but the action scenes lack any real drama or anticipation, leaving the film with a flat feeling that lacks any true excitement.