Jesse Owens’ incredible four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, conceived as a showcase for the superiority of the Aryan race, is the most dramatic story in 20th century sports. That it took 80 years for somebody to finally dramatize it is a real head-scratcher, and Stephen Hopkins (whose best previous directorial work has been for television—notably House of Lies) deserves a good deal of credit for finally bringing it to the screen. It may be that up to now the images of Owens made famous in Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s famous documentary of the Berlin games made the task of recreating the moment in a traditional biopic too daunting. Or it may be that Owens himself, who was never a firebrand orator or spokesman for human rights, or a compelling civil rights activist, and had no subsequent professional career to speak of, or even a career as a film actor which he apparently aspired to, but was (post-Berlin) essentially only a simple noncontroversial family man, just wasn’t the sort of figure that made for stirring biopics.
These two roadblocks may explain two of the film’s most serious difficulties. The first has to do with Riefenstahl herself. Hopkins, perhaps blinded by a kind of hero worship of one of the most influential technical filmmakers of the twentieth century, whose Olympia is regularly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, portrays this Nazi apologist and tool of Joseph Goebbels’ hate-spewing Ministry of Propaganda as a sympathetic and humanitarian artist who just wants to get her film made and defies Goebbels’ attempts to stop her from portraying the truth. Fortunately, this absurd line of subplot doesn’t take up a lot of the movie.
As for the other difficulty—that of making Owens into the kind of action hero that does well in the movies—this film is also not particularly successful. In part the fact that the Owens’ family, his two daughters, were given final approval on all aspects of the script may have influenced the filmmakers to make this a very safe, noncontroversial and somewhat bland depiction of the man who accomplished these things. What we get for a good part of the film is a kind of paint-by-the-numbers version of the typical story of the gifted athlete from a humble background who is able, largely through the efforts of an inspirational coach, to rise to the top and emerge triumphant. It’s at least as old as Burt Lancaster’s turn as Jim Thorpe sixty years ago, and it is almost the same here. Other than a youthful fling with a woman poised to steal him from his childhood sweetheart and their daughter, Owens is portrayed as never deviating from the straight and narrow. As Jesse Owens, Stephan James (Selma) is flawless, not only with Owens’ character, but also physically: he trained vigorously to do all of the sprints and jumps himself, and is convincing as the athlete as well as the person Jesse Owens. But the coach, Ohio State’s Larry Snyder, played with a kind of ironic detachment by Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis, turns out to be a bit of a lush nursing his own quashed Olympic dreams. This adds another dimension to the film, one that sometimes takes the focus from Owens’ own story.
And that, I think, is the main difficulty with this film: It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it a celebration of Owens’ victories? It is a buddy story about Owens and his coach (Hopkins has suggested that this is the case)? Is it a biopic about Owens and his wife (an early script that would have been a full biography of Owens, rather than focused on the three years of this film, was ultimately abandoned)? Is it a history lesson for a generation that may have had no idea who Owens was before this film?
Which brings me to what I think the film is best at: Hopkins deserves kudos for not oversimplifying the factors behind, and the meaning of, Jesse Owens’ ultimate triumph at these games. My description in the first paragraph is precisely the kind of oversimplification Hopkins’ film avoids. It was not simply a matter of the African American going to Berlin and humiliating the Nazi bigots.
One of the more interesting subplots of the movie, which feeds, it seems to me, into the movie’s chief strength, is the American Olympic Committee’s division over whether or not to boycott the Berlin games. William Hurt, in a tiny role as Amateur Athletic Union head Jeremiah Mahoney, leads a vocal faction demanding a boycott of the games in protest over Germany’s racial policies. But Jeremy Irons, as real estate developer and ultimate head of the Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, after visiting Germany and getting assurance from Goebbels (played by a stoic and incredibly creepy Barnaby Metschurat) that all athletes will be permitted to take part in the competitions, and that the German press will be kept in check during the games, is able to sway the Olympic Committee to vote against boycotting the event—by the smallest of margins. But the NAACP approaches Owens himself, urging him not to take part in the games out of solidarity with the oppressed peoples of Germany. Add to this the prejudice and hatred Owens faces in his own country, even at his own university from white athletes and coaches, even, as it turns out, from his chief coach at the Olympics themselves, and the question of Hitler’s politics becomes a bit less clear-cut. Add to that the little known twist that Owens was able to earn his fourth gold medal only because two Jewish athletes were scratched at the last minute from the U.S. relay team at Goebbels’ insistence (enforced by a threat to Brundage that he will be exposed for collaborating with the Nazis) and the situation’s complexities pile up.
And while a hundred thousand spectators engage in the Nazi salute when Hitler enters the Olympic stadium, one German athlete, Carl “Luz” Long (played with profound sympathy by David Kross)—Owens’ chief competition in the broad jump—befriends Owens out of respect for his talent and his humanity, defying in front of the entire Olympic audience his own government’s policies. Long’s distaste for the direction the Nazis are taking his country underscores the point that every German was not a Fascist. Owen’s own response—that things are not so good for him in his own country either—is legitimate, based on the experiences we’ve been shown in the film. But, as Long implies, the deliberate and stated policies of his own government take such bigotry to a new level, the ramifications of which will become all too clear in the next decade. But in the one scene of the movie that takes place after the games, when Owens is not allowed to go in the front door of the New York hotel that is holding a dinner in his honor, but must enter through the kitchen, any simplification of history is left behind.
It’s hard to rate this one but ultimately the film’s strong points outweigh its pedestrian ones. I’ll give it three Tennysons as a much needed history lesson.