2016 Sports Biography
2 hours 14 minutes
From Focus Features
Carice van Houten
I confess I never knew much about Jesse Owens' story. I knew he was a gold medal winner in track and field in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with Hitler present. But I knew nothing of his personal life. Since I enjoy learning about the lives of real people, this film was a pleasing experience.
If Owens is presented here as he really was, then I admire the hell out of him. The film highlights his even-handedness, his ability to make it through trying times without displays of temperament, his respect for all those in his orbit and his tender love for his wife and daughter.
Jesse Owens was a naturally gifted athlete who seemed to win everything he ever participated in. He comes to the attention of coach Larry Snyder who wants him to participate in the 1936 Olympics, which is 18 months or so away.
Owens at first is eager to do it until he assesses the monumental prejudice against him. Not only is Hitler against any non-Aryan participating but even Americans were not standing behind him because of his color. His teammates also dismissed him as did various faculty members at Ohio State University. Even the NAACP asked him to boycott the games. He was close to backing out especially when he considered how awful it would be for him if he lost. But of course he did not back out nor did he lose. Capturing gold medals for his three scheduled events, he even nabbed a fourth gold medal for a relay race for which he was a last minute substitute and had not trained for.
The film can clearly be divided into two halves... before Berlin and then the Olympics themselves (80 years ago this year). I always like the back stories of famous people so I enjoyed the first half. I appreciate others may find it too slow. But once we all arrive at the games, the film picks up obvious excitement in not only the events but in the behind-the-scenes unscrupulousness with how Owens was treated in addition to Jewish American athletes.
I found the caring relationship between Owens (James) and his coach (Sudeikis) to reveal much about two men who rather defied the times. The two leads both delivered the goods. I now recall seeing James, a Canadian actor, in Selma and I have never seen Sudeikis in anything but it seems he's made a gob of comedies. This should impress some with what he can do dramatically.
The supporting cast had some good moments as well. Jeremy Irons was effectively slimy as an Olympics committee leader who quietly negotiated a shifty business deal with the Nazis. I wonder why Irons is not able to do a better American accent than he does. Carice Van Houten shone as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, deflecting Nazi business in an effort to film the Olympics the way she wants. Shanice Benton is charming as Mrs. Owens and Barnaby Metschurat is creepy as Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
After Owens' breathtaking Olympic wins he was celebrated in New York with a parade where over a million people gathered. But how sad is it that he was never invited to the White House by FDR or seemingly acknowledged in any way by the President. A humiliating experience showed Owens being denied entry through the front door of a hotel where he was attending an event honoring him.
As sports stories go this one isn't full of a lot of drama and that is chiefly because of the calm demeanor of Owens himself. He didn't create much drama around himself so there is a decided lack of it in the screenplay which may disappoint some filmgoers. If he had many personal demons, other than prejudice, the film did not investigate them. It may be compared to last year's 42, Jackie Robinson's story, a film I liked a bit more, which had far more emotions because the baseball player elected to fight the system a lot more than Owens apparently did. For me, for this one, I just sat back and luxuriated in watching a story unfold about a true American hero.