Pulling up lame

Hoop Dreams creators cripple the myth of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine

For years the brief, roaring life of runner Steve Prefontaine must have seemed an ideal subject for a movie. A no-nonsense, everything-to-prove kid takes on an intimidatingly prestigious history of track champions in his home state of Oregon and becomes the fiercest competitor, an unforgettable personality, and a mind-boggling distance runner, his call for greatness coming at the age of 19! He wins four consecutive NCAA titles in the same event, goes to the Olympics in 1972, and loses--stunning blow, time for reassessment--then comes back to set U.S. records in every distance between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and to wage a memorable battle for amateur athletes' rights.

Then his life is snuffed out at 24 in a horrible car accident, and his name--he was simply "Pre"--is immortalized, a symbol of the never-say-die soul of American athleticism. And in a final, appropriately American coda, he becomes the motivating spirit behind a start-up shoe company co-founded by his coach that turns into the capitalist Zen master of sports, Nike.

Whew. James Dean in track shoes. And it has taken this long for a movie to emerge. Well, make that two: Later in 1997 we'll get Robert Towne's Pre, starring Billy Crudup as Oregon's pride and joy. First to cross the finish line, however, is Prefontaine (with Jared Leto in the title role), a small, worshipful, yet bewilderingly empty movie that marks the first fictive effort by the makers of the acclaimed 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, director Steve James and producer-cinematographer Peter Gilbert. The news that these two were going to bring Prefontaine's story to the big screen initially sounded like a solid match. The way these filmmakers brought pavement immediacy, compassion, and a searing truth to their painstaking chronicle of inner-city youths Arthur Agee and William Gates seemed like the discovery of something new yet altogether timeless in movies: soulful storytelling. The art of human drama was reconfigured and reimagined with Hoop Dreams. So the idea of James and Gilbert bringing that touch to the past, to a figure who for many embodies a considerable number of complicated and mystifying aspects of pure athleticism--overpowering will, brashness, the thirst to win, bottomless skill--had to feel right. That the resulting effort is far short of expectations is a tremendous disappointment.

The trouble is that Prefontaine has been designed, from top to bottom, as a faux documentary. Throughout the movie James (he co-wrote the script as well as directed) gives us present-day "interviews" with the people in Pre's life, from his coaches Bill Bowerman (barkmeister R. Lee Ermey) and Bill Dellinger (Ed O'Neill) to his friends (Brian McGovern and Clueless' Breckin Meyer) to his girlfriends (Amy Locane and Laurel Holloman) to his German-born mother, Elfriede (Lindsay Crouse). The effect is hopelessly fake. It's meant to be fake, and it is fake, and so...why is it there? It's like most narration, serving to tell us what we should be experiencing. And at the beginning the comments are so weighted down with "he was the best"-style remembrances that any chance at the forthcoming film building any suspense with Pre's achievements has been severely undermined. "You just had to be there," someone recalls, and you're prone to think, So what good is watching this?

The trouble continues with the fact that the script simply isn't interesting enough to warrant a visual style that says, "You are there." The shaky hand-held, the 16-mm-blown-up-to-35-mm stock, Mason Daring's echoey solo guitar riffs--they all contribute to an unfortunate after-school-special vibe or the feeling that you're in gym class watching an educational bio. It's that low-key yet obtrusive, as if it were being ad-libbed in front of you.

Pre's participation in the 1972 Olympics, for instance--a grave upset for the determined, winner-take-all runner--is weirdly anticlimactic. After the cockiness of his proclamations that the gold was his all along--a matter of his just showing up--he comes in fourth. It has been said that if Pre couldn't be first, he didn't care about anything else, and yet the race--apart from the horror of the hostage crisis, dealt with perfunctorily at best--is presented with little drama at all. This was a monumental setback for Pre psychologically, and yet James--and, more important, Leto (as bland as if, well, Leto's hunky cipher Jordan Catalano from TV's My So-Called Life were portraying Pre)--give us nothing to hold on to and ponder. It's one more flash-forward commentary, then on to the next stage.

The moviemakers obviously love Pre, but seem stymied by his complexity. They don't give him the juice of a full-blown, emotional cinematic treatment, but they can't probe much past a surface cockiness on Leto's part (it's hard to like him at all, despite what his "friends and family" keep gushing about). By the time the movie has latched on to his most unusual and rewarding struggle--Pre's battle with amateur league officials over the right to compete with the world's best by personally inviting the Finnish team to Oregon--it's too little, too late. The big victory amounts to Pre reading a letter, then leaning out the door of his trailer to his buddies and saying, "The meet's on." Cut.

On the one hand, I can see why James and Gilbert felt like sticking to the ragged docu-feel they're accustomed to. Part of it is surely a comfort thing; the other, a desire to avoid turning the life of Steve Prefontaine into another Rocky or, worse, American Anthem. But to reduce this extraordinary athlete's life to something as anemic as Prefontaine is sad indeed: Interviews and mobile cameras didn't make Hoop Dreams; the people and what they said did. Pre was one of the most obsessive, exciting, and determined runners to slip on track shoes, yet his biopic appears to be in a potato-sack race.

Prefontaine.
Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ed O'Neill, Amy Locane, Lindsay Crouse, Breckin Meyer. Written by Eugene Orr. Directed by Steve James. Opens Friday.

 
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