A true-life, sort of anti-“Rocky” tale about the blazing and brief career of one of the most storied athletes of the early 1970s, “Prefontaine” gets to the finish line in reasonable shape despite plenty of sloppy running along the way. This first dramatic feature by “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James has one foot still squarely planted in the docu aesthetic and notably lacks any psychological interest or emotional depth. But pic does have a narrative line that keeps one interested, as well as a strong lead performance by Jared Leto. Modestly budgeted effort will tax the abilities of even the Disney marketeers to get the picture across to the students and young adults who would rep its most receptive audience, but a strong promo effort and a big PR push for Leto could propel it to decent results.
Steve Prefontaine was a celebrated runner from the time he arrived at the U. of Oregon in 1969, a Sports Illustrated cover boy a year later and eventually the holder of every American record for distances between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. The U.S.’ great white hope in track-and-field at the 1972 Munich Olympics, he unaccountably faltered there, and the defeat was a blow from which he had difficulty recovering. But before his death in a car accident two years later, he became significant as a sports activist, making important contributions in the area of athletes’ rights.
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Because of his tragic death at 24, charismatic nature and broodingly chiseled looks, Prefontaine has often been called things like the James Dean of the track world, and while this biopic is too prosaic and reportorial to indulge much in romanticizing and myth-making, some of this quality still comes through thanks to Leto’s willingness to play up the protagonist’s arrogant, not readily welcoming personality and his (literally) dashing style.
When the film’s Prefontaine first arrives at the university during the height of the anti-war movement, the small-town boy looks like a character out of the “The Brady Bunch” and has just as much political consciousness. He’s there to race, and to work under the tutelage of legendary coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey), whose homemade running shoes fabricated in waffle irons were the foundation of what was to become the Nike empire a decade later.
In the early going, director James relies heavily on docu-style talking-head interviews with friends and family members to fill in exposition and character points, and script by him and Eugene Corr has a connect-the-dots feel as it jumps from one track victory to another, with brief time out for such obligatory scenes as Prefontaine’s letting go of his high school sweetheart as he takes up with college girl Nancy (Amy Locane).
At the 45-minute mark, action shifts to Munich, where the grim, cell-like nature of the athletes’ quarters is amply noted; one wonders how anyone could perform to the best of their abilities while living under such adverse conditions. The Israeli team is staying in the building just across the way, and actual TV footage of the games is used to highlight the sports action, including Mark Spitz’s sweep of seven golds in swimming and the Russians’ controversial basketball victory over the U.S., as well as to dramatize the horror of the Palestinian attack on the Israeli compound, the hostage-taking and the subsequent bloodbath.
Sobered by this turn of events, Prefontaine says the games should be canceled and that he wants to pull out; when they resume, he goes ahead with the event in which he is favored, the 5,000-meter race, but comes in an embarrassing fourth, losing to Finnish contender Lasse Viren.
Licking his wounds back home, Prefontaine lives on a subsistence level in a trailer and resumes winning again, although he seems to lack the old spark. However, hungry for a rematch with Viren, he comes up with the idea of inviting Finland’s track-and-field team to a challenge match in Oregon. He suffers the disappointment of the Finns’ accepting, but without Viren.
This latter part of Prefontaine’s life is unruly and not particularly easy to dramatize, but the film stresses the notion that the runner used his setbacks to develop from a selfish guy interested only in his own excellence into a young man with the maturity to use his talents and leadership potential to lead a cause and help others. A brash egotist and a flamboyant performer, Prefontaine was far from being a typical Man of the People, but the picture trades on the ideas that adversity can change someone in unexpected but positive ways, and that even small, tentative gestures in a constructive direction can create a lasting legacy.
As the director moves through the story, one can all but feel James getting his feet wet as a dramatic filmmaker, reluctant to leave behind the reassuring concreteness of documentary fact for the imprecise mysteries of psychological nuance and emotional expressiveness. The film never strays sufficiently beyond the straight-line narrative to allow the potential character relationships to breathe or take on much resonance.
But the real-life story, which was the subject of the successful 1995 CBS-TV docu “Fire on the Track,” made by the present producers Jon Lutz and Mark Doonan, remains compelling, and James keeps it relatively interesting throughout. Brief snippets of races with the real Prefontaine are used skillfully enough that one sometimes has to look twice to determine if it is Pre or Leto, and the actor, in great physical shape, is 100% convincing in the many running scenes he is obliged to do. Beyond that, he holds center screen with ease, and he effectively, not too emphatically conveys the significant growing process his character undergoes during a short period of time.
Ermey is the perfect authority figure as Coach Bowerman, who is allowed a good measure of humanity in the late going as he confesses that age is catching up with him.
On most minimal means, pic does convey the wild-and-woolly feeling of the early ’70s; if the production values had been any more lavish, it is possible that all the docu and TV material would have blended in less well.