Despite a spotty record with dramatic programming, ESPN takes to the track, stumbles onto a classy story and appears to have no idea how to market and schedule it. Chronicling Roger Bannister’s siege on the seemingly unbreakable four-minute mile, this handsome production surely will evoke memories of “Chariots of Fire,” thus repping a big hop, skip and jump away from past ESPN biopics on Pete Rose, Bobby Knight and Dale Earnhardt. So it’s off to ESPN2, meaning “Four Minutes’ ” best shot at 15 minutes of fame will likely come on vidstore shelves.
Many sports fans doubtless have heard Bannister’s name, but there’s surprising depth to his story. A brilliant Oxford medical student, he embarked on running as a lark and resisted formal training with a coach, focusing on his studies even as he became post-war Britain’s great hope for track-and-field glory.
As his father tells him, other than scaling Mount Everest, the four-minute mile is “all that’s left to conquer on God’s green Earth.” Yet Everest has fallen by the early 1950s, and runners are still chasing the mile — including Bannister (well played by Jamie Maclachlan), who takes a drubbing from the press for pursuing his medical career when he could be circling the track.
A square-jawed individualist, Bannister’s failure to medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics is treated as a national setback. Afterward, he grudgingly relents and begins working with a wheelchair-using former athlete (Christopher Plummer) who devises an almost-clinical approach to scaling this particular peak that involves a two-man team of runners to set the pace before letting Bannister dash to the finish line.
Scripted by sportswriter Frank Deford and directed by Charles Beeson, “Four Minutes” is at times a little too sober and straight for its own good. Moreover, Bannister’s modest personal life — which entails being disappointed by one girl, then wooing another — feels like window dressing as pic builds toward the main event.
Still, the movie kicks into a higher gear during its finishing lap, as Bannister preps to break the four-minute mark while two great runners in America and Australia mount their own assaults.
In terms of history, the story also provides a noteworthy glimpse of an English population hungry for a hero following World War II and more subtly documents the gap between today’s pampered athletes and a chap who broke the world’s most insurmountable record virtually as a hobby.
Given the limitations of basic cable, this is an unusually sleek production, from the period trappings (deftly re-created in Toronto) to John Frizzell’s sumptuous score.
All in all, it’s a first-rate effort that probably deserves wider exposure than it’s apt to receive here. Still, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, those who remain in the TV movie race must go to war with the network they have, not necessarily the one that they want.