Movie Review: ‘RACE’ loses its footing

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

RACE | 134 min | PG-13
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli GoreeJeremy Irons and William Hurt

The 1936 Olympics were a constant source of tension around the world, being set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party. Stateside, the American committee threatened to withdraw in protest, only conceding to go under certain pretenses that athletes were not to be discriminated against; there were both African-American and Jewish-American athletes going to compete. Meanwhile, Germany was trying to keep its discrimination under wraps because the Olympics meant spreading Hitler’s cause, as well as financing for further Nazi endeavors.

The Berlin games were also known for the rise of one of the best American athletes of all time, Jesse Owens. Owens, already known in America as “the fastest man alive”. He would go on to dominate these Olympics, winning four gold medals in the face of bigotry, both foreign and domestic. Owens’ rocket to greatness during his tenure at Ohio State is the crux of the new movie RACE, which never really finds its footing.

We’re introduced to Jesse Owens in 1933 (Stephan James) as he is on his way to OSU. Once he gets there, he impresses his new coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a former track star in his own right. Together, Owens and Snyder look to bring each other glory through several adversities. Owens is fighting a racist Midwest mentality and Snyder fighting ghosts of past mistakes that cost him his career and family.

Meanwhile, other storylines are featured to bring better context to the final setting of Berlin. Over in New York, the AOC (American Olympic Committee) is meeting to vote on whether or not to abstain from Olympic competition, with architect Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) looking to make success for the athletes and his business. There’s also a storyline regarding Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) and her making the famed propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

While all of these narratives come together in the third act of Berlin, it does nothing to help the full context of the film. A lot of the miscues come from post-production: No solid transitioning to each story, incoherent time jumps (it goes from 1933 to 1935 out of nowhere), unnecessary establishing shots, and unnecessary added dialogue. It could have been elevated with better decisions in these areas.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Furthermore, the structure of the story is just a mess. It’s really nothing but the high points surrounding the characters, and certain moments to try and evoke sympathy from the audience. For instance, they build up Jesse’s character as a family man, but then throw him into an affair without any build of temptation. It just seems like a rushed production.

RACE isn’t without its charming moments, though. The acting is solid, with James and Sudeikis providing great chemistry as athlete/coach without it feeling like a pandering display. Also, the third act brings the movie to a place it should’ve been all along, as Owens’ success is shown in juxtaposition to various purviews; Jewish-Americans looking to him as their own defiance, Germans that are trapped by the Nazi party.

These purviews though leave the viewer wondering about what could’ve been if they focused on solely on any of these views, rather than quickly showing various angles of a story. It could’ve been a great story to showcase Owens’ discrimination in America in contrast to Jewish discrimination in Germany. There’s no need to glance over history in a historical/sports biopic; in fact, that’s partly what the audience wants in seeing these types of films.

RACE isn’t bad or unwatchable by any means. Actually, it’s very enjoyable, but without any impact. It just never hits its stride on the way to a satisfactory finish line.

RACE is in theaters nationwide today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.