1997, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Steve James. Starring Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Amy Locane, Ed O’Neill, Lindsay Crouse.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Jan. 31, 1997
If you’re not familiar with the name Steve Prefontaine, you’re probably not alone. And if you happen to be as uninformed as I was when I sat down to watch Prefontaine, the latest effort from the director and producers responsible for the highly acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, then you may enjoy the film even more than someone who knows the story and can anticipate its almost impossible (but true) conclusion. One thing is certain, however. Before long, we will all be abundantly familiar with the life of Steve Prefontaine, as there are rumored to be at least a couple other “Pre” biographies in current production. Steve Prefontaine (Leto) was a distance running sensation out of the University of Oregon in the early 1970s. His natural good looks, his huge ego, and his incredible speed made him famous for a time. Destined for athletic greatness, Pre’s trip to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich was tarnished by an Arab terrorist attack, resulting in an Israeli hostage crisis that curtailed the Games’ competitions. While the film suffers from some clichéd, made-for-television moments and may not deliver as consistently as Steve James’ first film did, Prefontaine conveys the runner’s story and more importantly, his love for the sport that ultimately transformed him into less of an ass and more of a human being. This successful characterization is definitely a team effort among actor Jared Leto (the brooding Jordan Catalano of television’s My So-Called Life), writers James and Eugene Corr, cinematographer Peter Gilbert, and musical director Mason Daring. Prefontaine is not only a tribute to the athlete Steve Prefontaine; it also is a fairly on-target period piece that captures the look and the sound of the 1970s in the Northwest. The film falters when it tries to make Prefontaine into more of a martyr than an athlete. It succeeds when it simply tells his story: his childhood in Coos Bay, Oregon; his relationship with his crusty coach Bill Bowerman (Ermey), who would eventually retire and co-found the Nike athletic wear franchise; his two significant romantic relationships; and of course his development as an amateur athlete. Anyone who has spent time as a competitive runner of any caliber will appreciate the film’s race sequences, well-paced thanks to editor Peter Frank. Prefontaine also is interesting for the way that it attempts to address the politics of college and amateur-level athletics. What proves confusing is James’ mix of documentary-style aesthetics with the film’s fictional elements, even though this technique comments provocatively on the blurred distinctions between fact and fiction. With its moving final scenes and well-developed subject, the story of Steve Prefontaine is a decidedly well-told American tale.