Legendary black athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) must overcome racism at home and abroad, culminating in his triumphant track-and-field performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the tutelage of gruff Ohio State coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Meanwhile, olympic committee members Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) must deal with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and his desire to make the Games a celebration of Aryan supremacy.
I do admit that I was vaguely aware of this story before watching this film and after seeing it, I can safely say that I don’t really know much more. Yes I know that this is film about Jesse Owens but it is rather a film about Jesse Owens (James) and the 1936 Berlin Olympics which he was a part of. The first time we see him is when he is about to leave his home and go to college at Ohio State University. We don’t get to see him anytime before that. The film kind of lets us assume (as we probably should) that things were hard for African-American people back around the time in which the film took place and we see proof of that with some racism (featuring several n-words) and an example of him having to support his family and also his girlfriend Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) and daughter. We don’t see him go through these hardships as he is thrust towards college early on and his eventual future at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. One thing I would have liked was a little more focus on this part of his life. Before getting to the olympics, the film featured a series of training scenes featuring Owens and his coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis) with whom he develops a close relationship. These scenes, more specifically their relationship, were the best parts of the film as their chemistry made these moments fun to watch. The running scenes were also shot nicely but some jumping shots contained some obvious CGI. Sudeikis’ Snyder as a character was a pretty generic, cliche coach-type but I found he brought a little more to overcome this, making him feel more human and relatable. He didn’t have much of a backstory but what was used, him being a past, flawed track athlete, was used to contrast with Owens’ own life. The film also featured a subplot involving the Berlin Olympics themselves including the impact of Nazi influence on America’s participation. Olympic committee members Jeremiah Mahoney (Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Irons) (but mostly Brundage) had to contend with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat) in order for the games to be more inclusive. The film didn’t explore the Nazi element too deeply which was nice but I found the whole subplot to be a little distracting from Owen’s story and kind of took its momentum at times but Irons’ involvement made them bearable. James is good here as Owens, portraying Owens’ ambition of wanting to be the best and his humility but lacked a little emotional depth. The film’s storytelling wasn’t too overly original here and was a pretty generic inspirational-type film so you can pretty much predict what will happen. I personally find these kinds of films very cheesy, mostly the emotional stuff, and it was a little cheesy here but I found some of the emotional stuff near the end to be engaging. Overall, there isn’t anything overly new here story-wise but the performances of James and Sudeikis elevate the film above the level of mediocrity.