Speed is a hard thing to document. Directors have spent years perfecting the chase scene, and sometimes it works; sometimes it drags, and feels slow. Thankfully, Race, a biopic about groundbreaking Olympic runner Jessie Owens, is anything but. For the most part it whizzes by, fast as can be, save for some moments where it loses its breath, and lags behind.
Clarity, is a major motif in race. Jessie Owens, a man living in a world fraught with the chaos of racism, must learn to focus, his mind and body, to be the fastest he can be. His Coach, Larry Snyder, — masterfully played by Jason Sudekis — does everything he can to instill focus within him; speed is not his greatest struggle, concentration is. When the track team is sitting in the locker room, and the football team enters, hurling racial epithets, and demanding the mixed race track team exit, Snyder simply ignores them. He implores Jessie to focus on him, and Director Stephen Hopkins helps us do the same; all sound, save for Sudekis’ surprisingly authoritative voice, are drowned out. At one point Jessie, prior to a race, assumes his starting position. Everything is silent, until the gun rings out, and Owens takes off like a lightning bolt. In his search for clarity, he has been successful.
Race is not without its stumbles however. The movie’s writing often fails to fully acknowledge Owens’ weaknesses. When Jessie meets another girl on the road, and cheats on his girlfriend, whose daughter he fathers, he runs into some trouble. Amazingly, however, he never meets with any major repercussions. He simply apologizes and proposes to his original girlfriend. I have no doubt that the real Owens was plenty sorry, but the movie, in its scramble to cram all that it can into the movie, fails to show us any remorse on Jessie’s part. This makes it seriously difficult to see Owens as an honorable character, American hero though he may be. I like my heroes flawed, and Jessie Owens is as flawed as they come, but the movie never really sees the implications of Jessie’s less than commendable actions.
In the end, Hopkins’ immaculate camera work, does a pretty good job of redeeming race. The way that it captures the flowing coolness, and frantic rush of track racing is to be applauded. Even though every race is only nine or ten seconds long, Race makes each one feel much longer, as the camera somehow shows the runners with perfect lucidity, while the world around them flits by at breakneck pace.
When Owens first enters the Olympic stadium, the camera circles Owens dizzyingly. It simultaneously captures the thrill of realizing one’s dream, and the fear, of the daunting task before.
Race, is far from perfect. The film is Jam packed with narrative, and these sequences are often fairly exhaustive. For how focused Jessie is on victory, Race is less focused on precision. Some conciseness is to be desired; indeed, were the move condensed a tad bit, it would probably have the same, if not greater effect on the audience. Nonetheless, it tells a great story, and with some solid acting from Jason Sudekis, Stephan James, and Jeremy Irons to boot. Race won’t set any records on the track, but it puts up a decent time; not too shabby.