At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, 29-year-old Czech runner Emil Zátopek achieved the seemingly impossible, winning three gold medals in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter and (following an unexpected last-minute entry) marathon races: a hat-trick that remains unmatched. He’d already won two medals at the previous Olympics, and repeatedly broken his own speed records in assorted categories. Two years later, he broke the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000 meters.
Most of these achievements are dramatized, in suitably hearty and rousing form, in director David Ondříček’s polished, engaging biopic “Zátopek,” and certainly, it’s a life that could forgivably merit the most bombastically flattering sort of sports-drama treatment. Yet the emotional peaks in Ondříček’s film lie, unexpectedly, elsewhere. Ambitiously attempting both an interior character study as well as a broad historical overview, “Zátopek” appears to sincerely grasp the soul of a man for whom winning wasn’t everything, even if he always won. A crowd-pleasing curtain-raiser at this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the film is sure to have legs on home turf, but is accessible enough (with a sizable portion of English-language dialogue) to cross over internationally.
Indeed, “Zátopek” clues us into its lack of nationalist tunnel vision early on, beginning not with its eponymous hero’s story but that of a younger protégé. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, world record-holding Australian long-distance runner Ron Clarke (“Animal Kingdom” star James Frecheville) collapses on the track, his dreams of a gold medal buckling alongside his knees. Concluding that his failing is more psychological than physical, he books a ticket to Prague to visit the now retired, middle-aged Zátopek (Václav Neužil), in the hope of getting his head straight. It soon becomes clear that thinking straight is not this peculiar, mischievous man’s forte at all.
From this 1968-set story of odd-couple buddydom, “Zátopek” cheerfully zigzags across its subject’s gilded past, focusing chiefly on the glory years without skimping on the interpersonal conflicts and friction wrought by his success. If the framing device of a later-life mentorship initially seems a needless complication in a two-hour-plus film, the wry, restrained script by Ondříček, Alice Nellis and Jan P. Muchow uses it intelligently, highlighting at every turn how Zátopek diverges from the standard sportsman’s mentality. As past and present alternate, the eccentricities of the older Zátopek gradually knit together with the cocky showmanship of his younger self. Prime athletes may get slower with age, the film suggests, but they do get better.
In keeping with this mellow characterization, production designer Jan Vlasák and cinematographer Štěpán Kučera re-create the midcentury athletics circuit with muted, burnished elegance, giving the film a rewarding sense of scale and international sweep without resorting to travelogue excess: The film is out to remind you of an era in which professional athletics retained a certain austerity. Even Jarosław Kaminski’s light, nimble editing in the race scenes avoids overly fevered, high-octane cross-cutting, evoking a different pace altogether from contemporary sports coverage.
Tenderly binding the film’s various absorbing Olympic reenactments across the years is a pleasingly frayed romance between Zátopek and his eventual wife, champion javelin thrower Dana (an irresistible Martha Issová), who regards his quirky self-mythologizing with an accepting but jaundiced eye: Theirs is a marriage built on mutual capability and drive, though she can’t always mask her rage when he posits her victories as extensions of his own. That so much of “Zátopek” turns out to be a push-pull marital drama is a surprise made pleasant by the winningly matched performances of Neužil and Issová, who play their respective characters with all the messy human creases you’d expect of two fine character actors thrust into golden-god leads. In the stages where Dana is absent — setting the already erratic Zátopek further off-kilter — Frecheville’s sweetly stoic, undemonstrative Clarke proves a different kind of foil, as the older runner attempts to pull him, at least a little, into his more casual, chaotic mindset.
Zátopek’s general nonconformist sensibility is shown to less twinkly effect in the professional sphere, where it sometimes meekly bends to the authorities’ efforts to use him as a kind of Communist Party mascot; elsewhere, his moral principles and sense of sportsmanship clash more nervily with their management style. It’s perhaps surprising that “Zátopek” opts out of dramatizing his eventual expulsion from the Party in the wake of the Prague Spring, thus resigning him to a life of menial labor. There’s a different film to be made pivoting on that unjust fall from grace, though this one finds its own pathos in the humble path he ultimately finds for himself.