The story of athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and his rise up the ranks as the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany edge closer. Whilst Owens is facing racial prejudice at home (especially in the Southern states) whilst trying to qualify, American sporting figureheads like Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) are at odds over whether America should even send a team over there at all, with Hitler’s rise in Germany. Jason Sudeikis plays Owens’ no-nonsense, glib coach. Carice van Houten plays devout propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, assigned the task by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to cover the Games and pissed off when Goebbels keeps getting in the way of her vision.
The story of Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Olympic Games is not only one of the greatest in sporting history, but in history full-stop. We know it got worse before it got better, but for a brief moment in 1936, am African-American athlete made Hitler look like a boob and proved he was better than the white man at something. It was a moment of triumph before the storm, but a helluva moment nonetheless. So it’s with some sadness and disappointment that the story is told in somewhat lacklustre TV-movie level fashion in this 2016 biopic from director Stephen Hopkins (“Judgement Night”, “Blown Away”) and screenwriting team Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (who previously combined for “Frankie & Alice”, with Halle Berry). It’s a great story not told anywhere near greatly, and it’s only due to the story itself that there’s anything much of interest here beyond some of the casting perhaps. Imagine what a real filmmaker like Spielberg, John Singleton, Ang Lee, or even Clint Eastwood could’ve done with this subject. Instead we’ve got the director of “Predator 2” at the helm and he offers up only moments here and there of great interest. The final stages in particular are a dreadful rush-job that should’ve been fleshed out. For a film that softballs the racism within America a bit, more focus on this part of the film would’ve been much appreciated. I mean, Owens didn’t die until 1980 for crying out loud. The opening scene isn’t much chop either but for different reasons, with dreadfully stilted acting and obvious expository dialogue making for awkward viewing. Once the main story gets going though, it’s watchable because Owens vs. Hitler is simply a great bloody story, even in truncated form. Hell, it’d be 3 hours long if it were more geared towards the home front on the racial issue, so I can understand keeping it focussed on specifically the story heading towards the Olympics in Germany. It just leaves the film somewhat underdone and sloppy. That said, there are moments where it pops up. I found it particularly interesting that Owens and the other African-American faced no segregation in the Olympic village in Germany like they would’ve at home. I also really liked the bit where Jason Sudeikis’ character teaches Owens to block all the racial bullshit out. The guy’s a hard-arse who has no idea of the struggles and hardship Owens is going through, yet he’s actually got the right advice for him anyway. Then again, there’s also an interesting bit where Owens’ burden is shown as Sudeikis says he doesn’t care about race. Yes, that’s because you’re white and you have a choice. Owens doesn’t entirely have a choice not to care. Race has come to define him and his life. He’s become a symbol and that adds pressure for him.
The lead performances by Stephan James and a well-cast Jason Sudeikis (playing someone with a dick-ish personality is right in his wheelhouse) are solid, as is Jeremy Irons in support. Physically she may not look much like canny Nazi-sympathising filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, but Carice van Houten is effectively creepy in the part nonetheless. The final scene Leni has with Owens is really incredible stuff. On the other side of the coin is the interesting friendly competitiveness between Owens and his German counterpart who is free of the prejudice and National Socialist attitudes of seemingly the rest of the country. Unsurprisingly Leni Riefenstahl attempts to use it for propaganda purposes to hide the truth about the Nazis and the Fuhrer. There’s one truly frightening moment right before one of the Olympic events involving pretty much the entire crowd saluting in unison like a bunch of sheep. Yikes. It’s a shame that these are but a few fleeting moments in a film that otherwise plays it extremely safe and TV movie-ish.
This should’ve been great. The real-life story is great. The film isn’t worthy of its subject, and remains only watchable simply because it’s based on a great story to begin with. Such a disappointment, with B-movie director Hopkins a strange choice at the helm of a non-genre piece. The pat screenplay also does a disservice to the real story by barely going skin deep. Owens was clearly one of the all-time greatest athletes like Jim Thorpe. Thorpe had the much better movie, however (“Jim Thorpe- All American”, a minor classic). You really wish this one were handled by a ‘real’ filmmaker, not a journeyman.