Whilst superhero films are the genre du jour, the biopic still does a roaring trade in Hollywood, and is seen by many as a shortcut to Oscars nomination. Sadly, Race, the tale of Olympian Jesse Owens, is unlikely to be winning any awards, being merely solid when it should soar.
Opening as Owens makes his way to Ohio State College, the film follows his journey to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, covering everything from the potential US boycott to the attempts by Goebbels and Riefenstahl to turn the event into the ultimate piece of Nazi propaganda. Yet this broad scope leaves an odd tension at the heart of the film that doesn’t arise from biographical detail, but from the nature of the story director Stephen Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse try to tell.
Ostensibly a classic sports biopic of Jesse Owens, Race also attempts to document much of the drama surrounding the 1936 Olympics. The split nature of the narrative saps energy from both of its worthy subjects. The result means one witnesses the on-track trials and tribulations of Owens as he makes his way from college runner to national hero, all the while back-dropped by first the machinations of Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) as he asks the Nazis to obscure their vile policies to ensure American participation, and then by the drama surrounding the regime’s embarrassment at Owens’ four gold medal victories. Of course the respective stories of Owen and the Berlin Olympics are inseparable, however, the film repeatedly encounters a problem of scale, failing to find the right balance between Owens’ personal triumph and the larger political backdrop that defined the competition. Race also stumbles in its depiction of, well, race. Hopkins presents a PG-racism (in keeping with the film’s rating) that, whilst disgusting when it appears, is largely glossed over in favour of a far less complicated version of Owens’ story.
In its best moments the film becomes exhilarating, most notably in the long shot of the runner entering the Olympiastadion before his first race to the en masse “heil” that greeted the Führer. Stephen James (replacing the Star Wars-bound John Boyega) quietly impresses as Owens, especially in his relationship with coach Larry Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis in his first dramatic role with trademark sardonic delivery. Yet for all the central duo’s charming chemistry, and the spine-tingling sight of Owens winning medal after medal, Stephen Hopkins never quite does justice to either the truly remarkable man or the momentous historic event.
Race is released nationwide on 3rd June 2016.
Read our interview with director Stephen Hopkins here.
Watch the trailer for Race here: