The story of Olympic legend Jesse Owens embraces so many different themes — US race relations and international politics, athletics and global history, bigotry and achievement and social change — that trying to pack them all into one movie is asking for trouble. Stephen Hopkins’s “Race” asks for trouble. As that blurry pun of a title implies, it’s an earnest, handsomely produced sports biopic whose chief flaw is that it tries to do too much, when focusing on one strand or another would have made for a stronger, more satisfying film. What we’ve got is a decent dramatized Wikipedia entry.
Owens, of course, was the Cleveland-born African-American track star who came out of Ohio State University to win four gold medals at the 1936 games in Berlin, embarrassing the Nazi hosts whose ideology decreed that white Aryan athletes were superior to all other beings. Owens thus became a star back home in an America that was still profoundly segregated, and “Race” tries to be honest about that without hurting anyone’s feelings — a more impossible task than anything Owens ever attempted.
But Stephan James — he played the young John Lewis in “Selma” — is fine as a somewhat prettier Owens than the one in the photos and competition footage. The script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse doesn’t whitewash the everyday racism of 1933 Cleveland and Ohio State, nor does it unnecessarily sanctify its hero, letting him have his out-of-wedlock daughter by a hometown honey, Ruth (Shanice Banton), whom he’ll marry only after a track groupie (Chantel Riley) has taken him out for a spin.
“Race” dramatizes Owens’s close relationship with Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder, who “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jason Sudeikis plays as a likably troubled soul with a losing team and a fondness for the bottle. The key sports moments are done up well, especially the 1935 Big 10 finals in Ann Arbor, Mich., at which Owens broke three world records (long jump, 220-yard sprint, 220-yard low hurdles) and equaled a fourth (110-yard dash) in 45 minutes. The movie also notes, obliquely, that the whites who had booed his arrival on the field cheered as he left.
If “Race” stuck to Owens’s point of view, more or less, it might have a dramatic pulse that stayed steady and sure. A parallel plot line, though, involves the wranglings of the US Olympic Committee as it debates whether to boycott the Berlin games, with a crusty Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage (anti-boycott) and an eloquent William Hurt as Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (pro-boycott). Then we’re off with Brundage to Berlin to see how the Jews are faring under Hitler. Surprise: Not so well, but Brundage receives assurances from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat, glowering like he wandered over from a monster movie) that the Germans will, ah, try harder. And so on.
By the time we get to the Games themselves, Sudeikis’s Snyder has given some of the least-convincing pep talks in the annals of sports movies, and Owens is caught repeatedly in the riptides of history, with a friendly German rival (David Kross as Carl “Luz” Long) offering solidarity and advice, some further perfidy when Brundage agrees to Nazi demands to drop two Jewish runners from the US hurdles team (Jesse balks at replacing them, then agrees), and a distantly seen Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) occasionally drifting into the proceedings like a bad smell.
At points, “Race” comes close to tipping into camp comedy, especially when Carice Van Houten — the Red Priestess of “Game of Thrones” — turns up as the Reich’s favorite director Leni Riefenstahl, who puts old Joe Goebbels in a snit when she insists on filming Owens’s on-field achievements for her landmark documentary, “Olympia.” The script, meanwhile, reels off locker-room bromides (“If you want to win, it takes more than a pair of legs”) and observations on race in America that are sincerely aimed and that just as often sincerely miss.
It’s one thing for Jesse to respond to Luz’s comment that he’s better off in America than Nazi Germany by saying, “I don’t know if there’s any difference, deep down.” It’s quite another when Snyder tells his new black track star “You belong to me” without any apparent irony on the part of the character or the movie. “Race” wants so badly to get every last bit of the big picture that it dashes past the little details that actually tell a story. Like an over-trained athlete who pulls a hamstring in the big race, the movie tries to do it all and comes up short.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice Van Houten, Shanice Banton. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 134 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements and language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.