As far as inspirational cinematic benchmarks go, Chariots of Fire has long been considered the go-to footrace film, largely due to its iconic soundtrack from Vangelis. RACE aims to stand on the podium alongside its peers with the true life story of track and field star Jesse Owens. The source material is ripe for all kinds of feel-good moments, from the immense discrimination in the United States against African Americans during Owens’ life to his participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin during Hitler’s reign. The impact of every world record broken and gold medal won by Owens lands with appropriate power, but it’s the cliché dialogue and surface treatment of the story ultimately knock this film down a peg. Still, for moviegoers seeking some good old fashioned inspiration, Race crosses the finish line.
The movie opens on Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James) setting out on his first day of college at The Ohio State University. We’re shown the segregation that is a part of Owens’ life as he’s made to sit in the back seat of a bus, and soon after, forced to endure the racial slurs being hurled at him in the locker room of the entirely white Ohio State football team. Owens is summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (played spectacularly in atypically dramatic role by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis), and Snyder tells Owens he wants to train him, if Owens agrees to dedicate himself fully. Raw talent is fine and Owens has plenty of it, Snyder tells Owens, but it’s the mental component that’s key to winning. Naturally, Owens commits to giving himself fully to Snyder’s training.
From there, story hits the typical sports drama beats. Jesse Owens continues to train, Larry Snyder implements new techniques, and everyone gets better at what they’re doing. Of course, there’s the occasional hurdle thrown in so it’s not too easy for the characters. Owens hurts himself right before a day of racing, and problems arise when he dates a new girl while the mother of his child waits for him back at home. It’s at best mildly interesting, at worst stalling until the biggest moments of Jesse Owens’ life comes around, those being his breaking of world records and the Olympic games themselves. The dialogue often hits right on the nose, unpleasantly so, and Coach Larry Snyder hands out clichéd inspirational lines like they’re free kittens. It’s a testament to the two leads, Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis in particular, that with their delivery it never reaches absurb levels of corniness. The script given here is never as good as it should be, never as good as a story of this caliber deserves. The events that take place are inherently stirring on their own. The most compelling scenes take place during the Olympics, where a Hitler-run Germany has been doing everything in its power to make sure no black or Jewish athletes compete. It is supremely satisfying to see Jesse Owens triumph and squander the Nazis’ plan to use the Olympics as a stage for their principals.
Perhaps the most powerful punch the film lands is when Jesse Owens is back on American soil and attempts to attend a dinner in his honor. As Owens, his wife, and Snyder approach the door, Owens is told he has to use the service entrance. It’s hard not to see the hypocrisy in that moment, for Americans at that time to decry Germany’s actions while still discriminating against its own citizens. The scene is played perfectly, and it’s the sort of moment this movie could use more of. The story’s events are powerful by their own nature, and not necessarily due to the film itself. Despite great performances by Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis, the script often holds the movie back from breaking out into a full-out sprint. All of the major events of Owens’ life are touched on, but too often it feels as if the script is only scratching the surface rather than creating a lasting testament to Jesse Owens’ achievements. Race hits a few high points but fails to maintain its stride throughout it’s entire running time.
I give Race 3.5 dramatic Jason Sudeikis characters out of 5
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Wil Loper | Contributor