The second bigscreen biopic of track star Steve Prefontaine to appear in as many years, Robert Towne’s “Without Limits” reps a distinct improvement over Steve James’ “Prefontaine” in the filmmaking department. But as it covers basically the same dramatic events and creates essentially the same emotional reaction as the earlier picture, which grossed only $589,000 domestically, even positive reviews and a strong marketing push from Warner Bros. will have trouble attracting a wide public for this look at an early-’70s sports figure when it opens in the fall.
Title is a perfectly accurate reflection of what the film is about. A good-looking prima donna who pushed himself to the brink in pursuit of athletic excellence and set many records in long-distance running before his death at 24 in a 1975 auto accident, Prefontaine became celebrated for his competitive drive, cocky attitude and the quasi-rock-star aura surrounding him. He wasn’t exactly a counterculture figure, but his somewhat unusual combination of anti-authoritarian attitudes, intense rigor in training and great vanity makes him a somewhat curious, atypical subject for a film.
Pic returns Towne to the same field of endeavor that he explored in his first outing as a director, “Personal Best,” an intimate look at women runners training for the Olympics. Although that film is best remembered for its lesbian angle, it did offer a privileged inside view of the personal struggle and human toll involved in going for the gold.
Whereas many of the most successful sports stories are about underdogs, Prefontaine’s is different in that he was so damn good that he rarely had any serious competition. And as opposed to tales about long shots, in which the subjects rise from obscurity to unlikely triumphs, the most dramatic moments of any telling of Prefontaine’s life are all downers — his deflating loss at Munich, the killing of the Israeli athletes at the same Olympic Games, and his premature, seemingly arbitrary death. The rest is nearly uninterrupted excellence.
Distinguishing itself at once from James’ film, which offered a dryly documentary-like take on the runner’s life, Towne’s picture plunges the viewer directly into the biggest race of Prefontaine’s life, the 5,000-meter contest at Munich in 1972. Quick flashbacks then fill in the info that he had been running fast since his youth in Oregon, and that he was much sought-after by colleges nationwide before picking the U. of Oregon in order to work with legendary coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland).
Just about as soon as he gets there, Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) begins winning races, and with style. His only flaw, in Bowerman’s opinion, is that he always wants to be the frontrunner, to quickly pull out ahead of the others, and the coach’s efforts to change this style, to get him to lay back and save energy for a fast-burn finish, are to little avail.
Pre’s push-pull relationship with Bowerman, a future founder of Nike who is here seen crafting homemade, lightweight running shoes in a waffle iron, remains at the core of the story, which pulls up in Munich just past the one-hour mark. Hovering more around the edges is the young man’s tentative but ultimately intimate romance with prim blond fellow student Mary Marckx (Monica Potter). Mary maintains a cool distance from the big man on campus for the longest time, but, while seeing other women casually, Pre keeps after her. One aborted preliminary sexual encounter is handled in impressively delicate but frank fashion, and while it never becomes clear exactly what they meant to each other, Mary seems to have represented the closest friendship Pre had with anyone his own age.
By contrast, Pre’s relationships with his co-runners and male buddies are sketchily drawn, this despite the fact that a close friend and fellow ’72 Olympian, Kenny Moore, co-wrote the script with Towne.
But the heart of the film is the running, and the many scenes taking place at the university’s venerable Hayward Field and elsewhere are superbly rendered. Using occasional slow motion, careful compositions, precise editing and densely layered sound editing, the impression of speed, the proximity of one runner to another, the intense concentration within a huge public space and the expenditure of athletes’ full reserves of strength and endurance are arrestingly conveyed.
So, too, is Prefontaine’s exceptional status as a runner. Utterly convincing in the competition scenes, Crudup is brash and winning in the central role. One fully accepts Pre’s conviction that he will win every race he runs (making his defeat at Munich all the more crushing), and gets behind his crusading fight against the intolerable restrictions and manipulations of the then-all-powerful Amateur Athletic Union. Jared Leto, whose performance was the best thing in “Prefontaine,” evinced more ego and arrogance in the role, which made for a showier turn, but Crudup is entirely credible as well.
With a very good part for a change, Sutherland invests the imposing Bowerman with a host of subtly expressed attitudes toward his most illustrious charge. Potter is OK as the cautious g.f., while others in the cast are strictly sideline players.
Technically, film is superb, with first-rate lensing by Conrad L. Hall, propulsive editing by Claire Simpson and Robert K. Lambert, atmospheric production design by William Creber, fine sound work and contributions from any number of crew members and athletes to make the racing scenes as vivid as possible.