Based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. "Race" is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man's fight to become an Olympic legend.
Biopics are a tough genre to work in. History has a great way of muddying the story, then filmmakers are pressed into a precarious position of omission. What facts do you keep, what facts to you gloss over because they may cast your hero in an unfavorable light? It's a delicate balancing act, but if you're making a historical sports drama about a famed athlete, the filmmaker is now tasked with having to come up with a way to make the important athletic moments exciting and interesting on top of balancing an accurate portrayal of a historical figure. Director Stephen Hopkins and co-writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse do their best to make a compelling sports-driven biopic, but several extraneous political subplots weigh things down and the audience never really feels like they get to know the primary character in an intimate, authentic way.
J.C. "Jesse" Owens (Stephan James) is a natural on the track field. Growing up in the impoverished economically segregated areas of Cleveland, Ohio was hard, but he could run. He could run faster than anyone around him, and his legs were going to carry him towards getting a college degree from Ohio State University. Former OSU record breaker Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) has just taken up the post of head coach at his alma mater, with mixed results. His current crop of athletes isn't getting the job done. His scouts have found him some new recruits, but he's not too sure about the prospects. But once he sees Owens on the practice field, he knows he's found a rare talent that will not only win the school some important meets, but he's got every bit of potential for being a gold medalist at the upcoming 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Race, politics, economics, none of that matters to coach Snyder, winning is everything and Owens puts his heart and soul into his sport.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic committee is at a standstill over whether or not to participate in the games as disturbing reports start to come out of Nazi Germany. Would participating in the games appear as the United States sanctioning the activities of the Nazis? Or would boycotting the games harm the athletes in the face of the United States' own racial divide? Architect and businessman Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is tasked with sussing out the truth of Germany's recent behaviors towards its own citizens, especially Jews, and force them into calming their rhetoric in favor of a more peaceful Olympic Games. In order to do that , Brundage will have to deal directly with the Nazi propaganda machine headed by Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metchurat) and the artistic aspirations of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten).
As the date of the games edges closer and closer, Jesse Owens is stuck between the figurative rock and a hard place. While Snyder sees it as Owens' duty to go to the games as a world record holding athlete, members of the NAACP feel that Owens should boycott the games as a gesture of solidarity with the oppressed people within Germany as well as a protest of the conditions African American people face back home. With no other way to go but forward, Owens must travel to Germany and prove not just to the Nazis, not to his own country, but to himself that he is the best athlete to ever take the field - and the entire world will be watching him gloriously succeed, or fail completely.
I've always felt that Stephen Hopkins was a competent storyteller. I've enjoyed movies like 'Predator 2,' 'The Ghost and the Darkness,' and 'Blown Away' for the entertainment value they brought. His turn behind the camera for 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' was a fantastic piece of work and a nice dramatic change of pace, but sadly Hopkins seems to be in over his head with 'Race.' On one hand he's trying to deliver a fantastic character study of one of the greatest athletes who ever lived, and on the other hand, he's trying to make a compelling political drama. Sadly, neither story bears much fruit in the end as 'Race' feels like a film that is simply going through the motions. We see historical events unfold because the history books had a blurb about them, not because they're either integral to the actual story we're witnessing.
We see Jesse's home life coming from a poor family who can barely afford clothes to his girlfriend and their out of wedlock daughter whom he pledges to take care of. That should be a fine anchor point and motivator, but the film switches gears and we then focus on Jeremy Irons Avery Brundage sparring with William Hurt's Jeremiah Mahoney over whether or not the U.S. will participate in the games. After plenty of grandiose speech making, Avery visits Germany to be introduced to the tense and conflicting relationship between Goebbles and Leni Riefenstahl as the propaganda master wants to use the film of the games as a show if Nazi power while the artist desires to capture authenticity and the splendor of athleticism. Then there is the rivalry story between Owens and the German Carl Long played by David Kross which wasn't a rivalry at all but a friendship. That's a lot of story to delve through. Any one of those plot threads would have been enough for its own film, but mashed together, the whole affair feels like a short-changed highlight reel of a great man's life.
Since 'Race' is supposed to be focusing on Owen's story, actor Stephan James does a lot of the heavy lifting, but unfortunately, the drama of any given moment never really comes to life. The material is just too thin to have any weight. Scenes are put into the film because they may have happened, but not necessarily because we need to see them. Did we really need to see Owen's scandalous affair with Quincella (Chantel Riley) play out for twenty minutes and then see Owen's subsequent apology to Ruth? Not really, it could be implied and that valuable time could have been spent elsewhere. Such is the case with any number of the meandering subplots throughout this film. 'Race' has a herky jerky momentum to the point that it becomes increasingly difficult to feel anything about the stress and pressure Owens faced during those turbulent times. Added to the clunky dramatics, the races and athletic feats Owens performs on the track field are done with such little fanfare or style that there is little to no excitement to be felt. We should be sitting on the edge of our seats with anticipation. Instead, we're assured of the outcome because that's what had happened, there is never a single moment to suggest that Owens might not win and as a result it becomes difficult to muster up any real enthusiasm moment to moment.
'Race' certainly has its heart in the right place, but for a two hour and ten-minute film, it bit off way too much story to adequately chew. It's a fine film over all, it's made well with great intentions and the cast is doing their best, but the final product isn't very compelling. It's especially bothersome when there is such an incredible 'American Experience' episode about Jesse Owens that details the history of his life before, during, and after the 1936 Olympic Games in such a compelling way that it makes 'Race' an easy film to forget. It's worth watching, but it's tough knowing that it could have been much better with a little more focus.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Race' arrives on Blu-ray from Universal Home Video. Pressed on a Region A BD50 disc, the disc is housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case with identical slip cover. Also included inside is a voucher slip for a Digital HD copy of the film. The disc opens with trailers for other Universal releases, you can skip these or watch them play through until it reaches the main menu which features standard navigation options.
'Race' arrives on Blu-ray with a gorgeous 2.35:1 1080p presentation. The film is color tinted for a slight sepia tone, favoring golds and deep reds and greens. Flesh tones can appear a bit on the yellow side at times, but that's largely an effect of intent. Shot digitally, the image showcases an impressive range of depth. All you have to do is look at the intricate costuming and production design to appreciate the practical effects and digital work that went into recreating the look of the early 1930s. Sometimes for the wider shots, the clarity of the image can betray the effects work making the image appear notably flatter, but otherwise, there is an impressive sense of depth at all times. Black levels are often inky and deep without any unruly contrast blooms or crush issues to report. Free of any banding or compression artifacts, this is a pretty fantastic presentation without any technical issues to report.
With a decent DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix, 'Race' does have some odd issues keeping it from being a fully immersive auditory experience. Dialogue is audible and front and center, but through a number of scenes, it can sound hollow and canned. There are entire conversations in this film where the person talking isn't even on screen bringing an inorganic quality to it. There are some fantastic moments of sound design where Owens works to silence all of the crowd noise and focus on what's important that makes great use of the surround channels. Unfortunately, there aren't that many scenes like that. Most of the time this mix feels like an enhanced stereo track with only hints of surround activity. This is unfortunately also true during the big sporting events as well. The crowd just never really feels alive and a part of the scene save for a few scant chants of "U.S.A." and "Owens! Owens!" It's a serviceable audio mix to be fair, but at the same time, it's hard not to feel a little disappointed with it. Maybe this will get a nice kick on DTSX or Atmos when the film arrives on UHD Blu-ray at some point.
The Making of Race: (HD 3:59) Sadly, this is pretty standard thin EPK material.
Becoming Jesse Owens: (HD 4:02) A little more in-depth look at the work Stephan James put into to become Owens.
The Owens Sisters: (HD 3:10) A very, sadly, brief interview and look at how Owens' family helped with the preparation of the film. There just isn't a lot of material here for what should have been a fascinating extra feature.
'Race' is one of those well-intentioned movies that just never reaches the high bar it sets for itself. Not helping matters is the fact that there are essentially four stories in this film, and anyone of those on their own would have made for a compelling and exciting drama. Taken as a whole, you get a lot of interesting history with 'Race' but you never really feel a part of the proceedings. Universal Home Video has brought 'Race' to Blu-ray with a splendid video image, a bit of a clunky audio track, and a dismal assortment of extra features. The film may not be the best ever made but it's certainly worth watching. A blind buy is a tough recommendation to make, so I'm calling this one as worth a look.