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Jesse Owens biopic ‘Race’ never gains its stride

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Thursday, February 18, 2016, 12:00 PM

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Stephan James is Jesse Owens in “Race,” the story of the great American Olympian who took on Hitler’s Nazis.Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features

Stephan James is Jesse Owens in “Race,” the story of the great American Olympian who took on Hitler’s Nazis.

For a movie about Olympic gold, “Race” sure has a tin ear.

As a Hollywood biography of the great Jesse Owens, it’s meant to be epic. But its characters feel flat and unreal. Apart from a few big moments, it’s as cheap and false as a 1970s TV flick.

Working within its limited budget, the story focuses on a very small, pivotal part of Owens’ life, from his college days to his historic four track-and-field gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — as a furious Hitler fumed in the stands.

Yet it never gets up to speed.

On the plus side, Stephan James adds plenty of baby-faced charm to the dogged Owens. And filmmaker Stephen Hopkins gets some energy out of the Berlin scenes, mostly as the American is briefly cowed by thousands of stiff-armed, Sieg-Heiling spectators.

But the rest of the film feels unreal, its characters as faked as its computer-generated backgrounds.

Certainly “Race” treats Olympic documentarian Leni Riefenstahl more gently than history has. Carice Van Houton plays the German propagandist as an apolitical artist, determined to get the perfect shot, even if it means standing up to Goebbels.

Completely missing the medal podium, though, is a smirking Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, Owens’ college coach. Sudeikis is always popping up at just the right moment for an obvious word of encouragement or advice, but his performance is an embarrassment to him, to the late Snyder and to mentors everywhere.

Snyder had his own problems, of course, which I guess explains the endless shots of him swilling from increasingly larger bottles of Scotch. But Sudeikis’ work here just made me want to drown my sorrows in booze, too.

Yes, the film raises some important questions about Olympics and national propaganda, But the script races through them, just as it hurdles past the rest of Owens’ life, during which he was unfairly criticized by younger, more-militant athletes who had no patience for his quiet fortitude.

A movie that really mined that story would be worth the gold. This one barely doesn’t even capture the bronze.

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movie reviews ,
stephan james ,
jason sudeikis


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