A docudrama about the world’s foremost long-distance runner that is shot like a full-blown feature film, “Endurance” overpowers its plain, appealing subject matter with ultra-elaborate technique. Younger and more impressionable viewers may be swept away by the stunning images of Africa and the insistent East-meets-West score, but the more analytically inclined will be suspicious of the degree of contrivance involved and the stylistic idealization of Third World poverty. If Disney marketing can adapt to the demands of a specialized film, an audience could be found in the contemporary equivalent of the “Koyaanisqatsi” crowd. Opening is tentatively set for early next year.
Vet British ethnographic documentarian Leslie Woodhead focuses on the diminutive Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, who won the gold medal in the men’s 10,000 meters race at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Given the disparity between recent East African supremacy in distance running events and the virtually total lack of name recognition of these superior athletes in the U.S. and elsewhere, subject is a potentially fascinating one.
Framed by the beginning and end of the Atlanta race, body of the carefully produced picture impressionistically evokes the Olympian’s life, with Yonas Zergaw, a nephew of the runner, playing him as a pre-adolescent, and Gebrselassie himself taking over from about age 18. From the earliest age, it seems, Haile would never walk when running would do; diverse scenes depict him scampering around the family farm near the village of Asela, where a family of 12 lived in a one-room mud hut, running — barefoot — the six miles each way to school everyday, and doing long-distance chores, including a three-hour trip to fetch water.
Inspired by the 1980 Moscow Olympics victory of fellow Ethiopian Miruts Yifter in the 10,000 meters, Haile decided to become a serious runner himself and, undeterred by the death of his mother and the badgering of his father to pursue a real career, moved at 17 to Addis Ababa to begin training and competing in earnest.
From the first image of the adult Gebrselassie moving with seemingly effortless grace and speed across a striking rural landscape, “Endurance,” with its exceptionally smooth tracking shots, widescreen framing, complicated setups and, especially, its souped-up soundtrack, has much more the feel of a dramatic feature than of a documentary. Crucial, as well as routine, events in the subject’s life are re-enacted in a naturalistic manner that the filmmakers have said was inspired by Robert Flaherty, in that real people, rather than actors, are used to illustrate simple truths about an indigenous lifestyle.
But the lavishness of the visuals and the strenuous pursuit of cinematic beauty leads to what could almost be called a fetishistic devotion to the “purity” and “nobility” of the humble, impoverished existence, a strain that has run through one branch of ethnographic filmmaking since at least the late ’60s. And although it is quite understandable that no one would want to put so much effort into re-creating the life of a runner, only to see him wash out at the Olympics, it is still somewhat disconcerting to learn that the producers signed up the eight leading contenders for the race prior to Atlanta, only to settle upon Gebrselassie when he won.
The basic story of the runner’s life is inspiring, of course, and the man himself, a devoted Coptic Christian whose feelings about the communist regime under which he grew up are never revealed, seems exceedingly decent, a true gentleman despite his fierce competitiveness. But the basic trajectory of his life — a straight line to the top, without dramatic conflict or setbacks — is rather simplistic and undramatic, and all the cinematic overdrive can’t make it otherwise.
That said, the film is never less than arresting, with Ivan Strasburg’s Super 35 camera traversing some difficult terrain with surprising fluidity and vet sports director Bud Greenspan covering the Atlanta race with expert clarity. John Powell’s score, which is nothing if not big, links heavy, Western-style orchestration with native Ethiopian musical motifs and instrumentation to sometimes effective, sometimes overbearing effect.
Pic feels a tad overlong even at 83 minutes, and the people onscreen are never asked to “act” in any psychological sense, only to react. Haile’s father plays himself in the later sections, while his first cousin plays the Dad of Haile’s youth. Runner’s late mother is portrayed by his eldest sister.