The story of Jesse Owens is an interesting one in the sense that it was one that I didn’t have a whole lot of knowledge about the story other than the fact that he won gold medals in 1936 Berlin in front of Adolf Hitler. Therefore, I was definitely intrigued by the upcoming release of the film in order to gain more information on the story and hopefully see an entertaining film at the same time. Something awesome happened. I received an e-mail (my first in terms of interviews) to allow me to talk to Chantel Riley (which you can watch here), who plays Nala in The Lion King on Broadway and also was set to have a featured role in the film Race! She ended up being awesome, funny, beautiful, and everything and the discussion made me even more excited to see this movie (especially her part). And you know what? The film turned out pretty good.
The story is a little more than the one I outlined above. Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is a very talented sprinter and finally gets accepted into Ohio State University. There, he attracts the attention of a down-on-his-luck coach and former athlete Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder hasn’t had the greatest track record of producing winners despite coaching some great athletes but Jesse really stands out to him. Eventually, Jesse is running and jumping for Snyder and preparing for the Olympics while he gets pressured from all kinds of different sources about whether or not he should truly go to Berlin under the Hitler regime or not. At the same time, the Olympic committee sends Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) to smooth things over with Joseph Goebbels to assure that he will tone down the whole racism thing.
The film excels most with its performances. Stephan James is the core center of the film as Jesse Owens and he does a very good job. The guy even wore time period-appropriate and horribly uncomfortable shoes and did all his own athletics. Jesse can be emotional and even a little cocky at times but he has a heart of gold and he truly cares about his family and loved ones. He veers a little off-course when he meets Quincella Nickerson (Chantel Riley!!!) on a chance encounter and seemingly has a bit of an affair with her but he rights himself and gets back on the audience’s good side shortly thereafter. Riley is funny and alluring in her role as well. One of her exits on-screen actually made me laugh out loud. She took the limited screentime she had and made the most of it for sure. Jason Sudeikis was someone who I never expected in a movie like this but he also does a really solid job. In a lot of comedies he plays the straight man anyway so all he had to do was play a variation of that archetype but he also had some depth and warmth that I had yet to see from Sudeikis in the past. We also get Jeremy Irons shining in a smaller part and William Hurt barely showing up long enough to make much of an impact either way.
There’s no real inherent problem with the film. I would just say that it is quite good and leave it at that, really. It has all the elements of a solid bi opic film crossed with a political thriller and the latter is something you don’t usually get to see in a biopic. The scenes with Jesse and Snyder are good and well-acted but the most impactful scenes for me were any ones in which we saw the horrible pre-cursor to World War II in Berlin and the scenes with Irons negotiating were nail-biters as well.
A good film! I enjoyed it. Check it out!
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)