T hose of us who follow sports films remember 1997-1998 as the Steve Prefontaine Era, when two completely independent films were released in consecutive years (Prefontaine in 1997, Without Limits in 1998) honoring the track star. Track fans will recognize that name, of course, as belonging to one of the most influential American distance runners of all time, but everyone else may be scratching their heads and asking Steve Who?
This film will give you the answer. It’s a biopic that draws on elements of documentary (lots of to-camera statements by the various characters as well as fictional “home movies” and “documentary clips” that are pretty convincing). Growing up in a working class family in Coos Bay, Oregon, young Pre (the nickname he is known by) tried to play football but was too small. What he could really do well was run, and his abilities got him a him a scholarship to the University of Oregon, to train under the legendary Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey).
Pre (Jared Leto) is cocky and confident: He doesn’t mind predicting great times for himself, nor telling other runners that he’s going to beat them. He’s also pig-headed, ignoring team rules about not racing during practice, refusing to defer to upperclassman, and (initially) insisting he’s a miler (a glamour event at the time) despite the fact that Bowerman believes he’d be better at the three miles. Above all, he laid it on the line in every race—someone comments early on that he made running a “blood sport,” and that naked need to dominate is one of the characteristics that made him a legend. It also led him to take part in foolish stunts and to take other people, like his hometown girlfriend (Laurel Holloman), for granted, because he was much too self-centered to think about anyone but himself.
Steve Prefontaine had the misfortune to come of age as an runner at a time when American track athletes were expected to maintain a strictly amateur status (Prefontaine, for instance, lived in a trailer and worked as a bartender after graduating from Oregon), while in other countries top athletes often had no-show jobs that allowed them to train full time. Athletes were also required to compete in the meets they were told to compete in, rather than on a schedule that would benefit their career. Prefontaine’s role in challenging the system is part of his legacy, as much as his victories on the track. On the plus side, in Pre’s day track and field was still considered a major sport in America, and even dual meets with other countries received substantial press coverage.
Prefontaine is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, and that goes triple if you’re a track fan. James’ pseudo-documentary style works well, and he assembled a strong cast including Lindsay Crouse as Pre’s mother, Peter Anthony Jacobs as Pre’s father, Brian McGovern as fellow Oregon athlete discus thrower Mac Wilkins, and Ed O’Neill as Oregon assistant coach Bill Dellinger. Real documentary footage is also salted in, including some coverage of the Munich Olympics (Mark Spitz’s victories, the U.S. basketball team’s defeat). Leto’s performance is outstanding—he even captured Pre’s peculiar running style, as well as his indomitable personality. On the down side, James’ attempts to place the story historically (student protestors on campus, Bowerman’s creation of the waffle sole) sometimes seem strained, and some historical facts have been fudged in a way that seems completely unnecessary. | Sarah Boslaugh
Prefontaine is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by director Steve James and the trailers for Prefontaine and several other films.