The chilling moment in “Race” comes when Jesse Owens, played by Stephan James, is lining up for his first sprint at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
He notices the roar of the crowd, as it rises in a wave, turning to the right and raising, as one, right arms in the Nazi salute as Hitler himself enters the stadium to watch the games from his Fuhrer box. Then Hitler, who looks very little like the real Adolf, returns their salute and the illusion and the chill are gone.
That’s much the case for “Race” itself, an overlong, all-inclusive and all-too-tepid bio-pic of the great Olympian who showed the Nazis, and the racists black home, that in Owens’ words, “Ain’t no black and white. There’s only fast, and slow.”
James, of “Selma” and the faith-based sports drama “When the Game Stands Tall,” is a perfectly stoic Owens, even if he suggests little of the inner fire Chadwick Boseman let us see in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic “42.” Owens faced the same racist culture and obstacles Robinson did, more than a decade earlier. The inner turmoil and seething that must have come from that are missing, here.
But they were very different men. Owens is captured at someone caught up in the fame that came when he broke a fistful of world records in the space of 45 minutes in one college track meet in the mid-1930s. He fathered a child before college, was late marrying his baby’s mother and liked the occasional beer.
He is unflappable when his coach, the first time he meets the man, suggests he should plan on competing in the upcoming Berlin Olympics.
“I heard they don’t much care for colored folk over there,” Jesse muses.
They don’t much care for them over here, Coach Snyder hisses back.
But that’s the first place “Race” goes wrong. Jason Sudeikis tackles his first serious role and never sheds his years of comical jerk baggage. He never for one second lets us forget that he’s looking for the next place to land a one-liner.
Director Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space,” “Predator 2,” and a lot of TV) has his casting coups, and misfires. Barnaby Metschurat looks nothing like the shrimpy Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, but Andrew Moodie impresses, wonderfully, as Jesse’s too-proud-to-speak (as his boy goes off to college) father.
Carice Van Houten is quite good as German actress turned Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. But Jeremy Irons is entirely too old to play the ex-Olympian about to become U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage.
And those two characters are where “Race” strays most seriously from the generally-accepted historical record. Riefenstahl is shown to be awed by Owens and determined to resist her Nazi masters by filming him and making sure he made it into her Nazi propaganda documentary, “Olympia.” Irons manages an even trickier feat, suggesting a conflicted Brundage when history has judged him an anti-Semite who fought to keep the U.S. from leading an international boycott of the Nazi Olympics, a man who may have had a hand in keeping Jews from competing on America’s behalf.
My first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. during an Olympic year featured an exhibit explicitly accusing Brundage of those failings, and suggesting the world might have been a different place had America done what it had the guts to do in 1980 — deny an aggressive, predatory totalitarian state the propaganda value of a showcase Olympics.
This reinterpretation of Brundage — Irons and the script make him brusque, bluff and blunt, a hard-nosed negotiator who might be excused for seeing what he wanted to see on a fact-finding mission to pre-Olympics Germany — might be accurate, but it’s a head-snapper.
Hopkins’ chief failing was his inability to make this planned Black History Month epic into an actual epic. Two hours and 14 minutes of Owens’ greatest hits should have lump in the throat moments, welling pride, scope and majesty.
And “Race”, for all the efforts of its cast, for the care that went into re-staging the games, using real locations and digitally creating crowds, the Hindenburg and stadiums, doesn’t.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and language
Cast: Stephen James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Carice Van Houten
Credits: Directed by Stephen Hopkins, script by . Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:14