This film is being distributed in the UK by Altitude Films and I saw it as a Vue Cinema. You have to estimate the adverts and trailers if you do not want to sit through them. But when they are over there is a warning about the use of mobile phones, tablets and all the other electronic clutter. Then the feature begins. However, on this occasion, after the BBFC certification, (PG – infrequent racist language, mild bad language, sex references, violence), I found we were watching contemporary sports people! This was not recognition of the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens, the film’s subject, but some sort of promotion. This is another of those really bad ideas made easier by digital technology, the cinematic equivalent of those annoying trailers that television often runs over the end credits.
So, after a couple of minutes, we did actually get the movie, a biopic. The film starts in 1933 when Jesse Owens won a scholarship to Ohio State University. Apart from his physical prowess the early stages of the film present his personal life, including marriage to his partner Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) who has already born him a child. At the University there is a clear presentation of the racism that separates black students from white. Here we meet coach Larry Snyder full of aphorisms and nearly always hugging a bottle.
The film becomes more interesting when the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics rises. In the USA, as elsewhere, there is a debate about a possible boycott because of the Nazi oppression, especially against Jews. The debate is dramatised through Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), for a boycott, and Avery Brundage, for participation. Avery Brundage journeys to Berlin where he meets Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazi leader agrees to ‘tone down’ their actions for the duration of the Olympics. So Jesse goes to Berlin and wins his four gold medals.
The US characters are generally well played though fairly conventional, Stephan Jones as James Cleveland Owens (his actual names) is credible as the athlete and Jason Sudeikis’ coach is engaging and suitably liberal. The athlete/coach relationship is full of recognisable scenes and tropes: there is even a variation on the classic ‘I was made to run’ line. Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage brings a Machiavellian quality to his character and steals most of the scenes in which he plays. Barnaby Metshurat’s Goebbels is equally Machiavellian but also monosyllabic and malevolent. Carise Van Houten’s Riefenstahl is well done but bears little resemblance to the actual character.
Riefenstahl provides an angle to the script which makes much of the filming of the Olympics, though it is only infrequently reflexive. Riefenstahl also acts as an interpreter tween Brundage and Goebbels. These scenes are the closest that the film comes to addressing the political substance of this story. Predominately this is a sporting film, so the various obstacles in Jesse’s path merely delay his triumph. There is a token appearance of a representative of the NAACP, which organisation supported a boycott. And when two US athlete who are Jewish are blocked by the Nazis, they still turn up and tell Jesse to win for ‘America’.
The film does address the vicious racism in the USA. However, probably unintentionally, the racism of the Nazis tends to be balanced by this. There is a telling scene where Jesse and Ruth, even after his medal triumph, have to use the staff entrance when attending a celebratory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. In neither case does the film address the actual nature of the racisms. The racist attitude of the crowd at a US college sporting occasion turns easily to cheers when Jesse wins. I doubt it was that simple.
The film is overall entertaining. There is a lot of CGI, but mostly well done if noticeable. The camera work and editing are generally fine, though at time parallel editing is somewhat clumsy. The Sight & Sound review notes that Owens was a life-ling Republican who argued against the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a logic of sorts in that view. The film was completed long enough ago to have a release in Canada in February this year. So there is no attempt to address the ironies of Olympic boycotts including the current one.