' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Without Limits

Friday, August 08, 2008

My Great Movies: Without Limits

Many is the number of times I've been asked by people to name my favorite Sports Movie. This is an interesting question because I myself often wonder precisely what constitutes a Sports Movie. Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum has written they "are, for the most part, fractured fairy tales with soft, gooey centers."

Director Robert Towne's 1998 "Without Limits" (which he co-wrote with the great sportswriter and former long distance runner Kenny Moore) is a Sports Movie. It features numerous racing scenes and the relationship between a cocky long distance runner and his crusty coach. But how many sports movies have you seen where 1.) The hero never really accepts the changes demanded by the coach, 2.) The hero loses the Big Race and 3.) The hero suddenly perishes at the end? Of course, "Without Limits" is based on fact, the story of arguably America's greatest long distance runner, Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), and so it had no choice but to veer from the formulaic course so many Sports Movies tread. It's not a fairytale and its center is not soft nor gooey.

Normally if I see a movie I love (or hate) and pull up Roger Ebert's review I will find he and I are in unison. "Without Limits" is an exception to this rule. He wrote that, "Prefontaine was more interesting as a public figure than a private one." I could not disagree more. I was slightly familiar with Prefontaine when I first viewed this movie. I knew about his race at the Munich Olympics and I knew he died in a car crash. But his private persona was a mystery to me, and watching this film put it front and center and made me realize how much I love the man and what we shared in common.


At the start, the track & field giant that is Oregon University sends an assistant coach and two runners to Prefontaine's home for recruiting purposes. This, however, does not please their potential signee. The only person who can persuade him is the legendary head coach who doesn't believe in recruiting, Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland, gentle but commanding). "I don't go anywhere near Eugene unless Bowerman personally says he wants me," declares Pre. Thus Bowerman offers a contrite handwritten letter and off to Oregon goes Pre. This scene is extremely important. Yes, Pre courts comely Mary Marcx (Monica Potter, re-proving that she only has two facial expressions) but the most vital relationship of the entire film belongs to the runner and the coach.

Pre is a "front-runner", which is to say he darts to the lead of the race at the very start and stays there, as opposed to hanging back and "stealing" the race at its end. Bowerman explains that front-running is a "disaster" at the international level of competition but the stubborn Pre will have none of it. A key confrontation comes in Bowerman's scenic backyard overlooking the McKenzie River. Bowerman wants to know from where Pre's "front-running" compulsion comes. "I only want to win if I know I've done my best," the long distance prodigy explains, "and the only way I know to do that is to run flat out and in front until I have nothing left." He wanted to win more than anything but winning meant nothing unless he did it by adering to his own idealistic standard.

Later, during Pre's battles with the pre-historic AAU (foreign runners were paid to work on the track while American runners had to fend for themselves), Bowerman calls out Pre tellingly: "You and the AAU have a whole lot in common. Resistance to change."

The only instance in which he does to an extent alter his running style happens in the movie's focal point - the 5,000 meter race at the 1972 Olympics. It has become a common device to begin a film with the end but Towne starts "Without Limits" with the race, a sequence placed in the middle. It is the crux of the story. All that happens before is leading up to it and all that that happens after is more or less a result of it.

Many sports movies based on true events tend to fictionalize the key competitions (see: "Glory Road") but the race here is presented just as it happened in real life and, as far as I'm concerned, it is the absolute pinnacle of sporting events brought to the movie screen so far in cinematic history. It is not simply Pre doing battle with his fellow runners, but also with his coach (Bowerman's strategy vs. Pre's) as he looks on from the stands and with himself. Perhaps if Pre were around he would disagree but the real life outcome is decidedly romantic in a way no screenwriter would ever dare pen.

The race having happened at in Munich means, of course, the horrendous tragedy involving the 11 Israeli athletes will turn up as it cannot simply be side-stepped. But rather than feeling like an ungainly appendange Towne works it in rather gracefully with Bowerman offering his runners a brief monologue that I wish NBC would show several dozen times during the upcoming Beijing games rather then trotting out puff piece after puff piece. (I did wish, however, the film chose to present more of Pre's real-life anger at the situation.)

In the lead role Billy Crudup offers a brilliant biopic performance. One must be careful in a movie like this to avoid mere mimickry and while Crudup unequivocally nails Pre's unorthodox running style (the Munich race shifts between actual footage of Pre and a re-enactment with Crudup and you can never tell when or where) he also offers a beautiful portrait of a complex man. He displays the pomp a cocky guy like this would have but never fails to generate empathy. His reaction when Mary pulls away from him in bed clues you in to the good heart he possesses. And notice how the slamming down of the bench during an argument with Bowerman functions not as anger but as an exclamation point to a speech he's probably been forced to give dozens of times.

The film must also deal with Pre's death in a car crash at the age of 24 and taken solely within the context of the movie this terrible event seems to completely destory the film's arc. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote that the death in the movie "is surely a tragedy, but a naggingly arbitrary one. We're watching the story of a man on the verge of transcendence, and then, suddenly, it's as if a piano had been dropped on his head. (His) death, I'm afraid, breaks all the rules of screenwriting..." As a means of disagreement I would like to return to the esteemed Roger Ebert and borrow another line of his from a different review: "Life can contain catastrophe, and life can cheat. The ending is the making of the movie, its transcendence."

The scene prior to the car crash involves Pre explaining to a teammate how he plans to set the world record in the 5,000 meters and the scenes prior to this one inevitably involve Pre's mental fallout from losing the race at Munich. He fights through the dark times to emerge enlightened and then life pulls the rug out from under him. It happens all the time and no screenwriting professor and his or her devotion to narrative flow can stop them.

Though perhaps there was something at else at play, too. Pre was, as I've said, cocky and stubborn. He famously once said, "The hell with my country. I compete for myself." (To be fair, this notorious quote was taken out of context.) But in seeing this film and reading about him afterwards I sense in Pre someone who had figured out his particular place in the world. He found something he loved and poured his heart and soul into it. He had to run. He had to. A lot of people in life, whether they pass away early, at middle age, or late, don't ever find something like it. "It's the hardest thing in the world to believe in something," he tells Mary. "If you do, it's a miracle."

At one point Bowerman chides his star that he can't give a fellow runner and the crowd the "performance" they expect. Pre dismisses this notion, "You can call a race any goddamn thing you want but I wouldn't call it a performance." Bowerman wonders what he would call it. "A work of art," says Pre.

This passage is moving to me beyond words. God, is it unbearable when I passionately rave about a film and someone responds, "It's just a movie." ("It's just a...." is the worst beginning to a sentence in the English language.) It's not just a movie. The great ones are never just movies. They're works of art. "Without Limits" is a work of art. It's the best Sports Movie ever made.

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