Buried inside the oeuvre of Steve James, acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams (1994) and Life Itself (2014), is Prefontaine (1997). Starring Jared Leto in the eponymous role, this film follows the story of Steve Prefontaine, one-time college track phenom and Olympian long-distance runner. Staged in pseudo-documentary style, the track-star’s meteoric rise and fall unravels in mock testimonies, archival footage, and a classic Hollywood narrative.
Director: Steve James
Producers: Mark Doonan, Peter Gilbert, Jon Lutz, Irby Smith
Writers: Steve James, Eugene Corr
Cinematographer: Peter Gilbert
Editor: Peter C. Frank
Music: Mason Daring
Cast: Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ed O'Neill, Kurtwood Smith
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 1997
US Distributor: Disney
The result is sort of strange, and surprisingly entertaining. The underacting in this film is so blatant, it approaches parody. This is a biopic of an Olympic runner, but even as Leto pounds the track, he barely breaks a sweat. This produces a perverse excitement, it’s shocking to see him shy away from complexity and character development at every turn, with running the subject of basically every conversation in the movie. Leto’s blasé attitude is challenging, even as he delivers whopping one-liners: “I am going to work so that it's a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I'm the only one that can win it.”
The strange drama of the film basically centers around Prefontaine’s Olympic hopes in 1972; which turns out to be pure anti-climax: this was the Munich Olympics, famously interrupted by a terrorist attack. The events at Munich unravel in a disjointed and refreshingly ambivalent manner, and precipitate a persistent ambivalence and confusion that follows Prefontaine for the rest of the film. SPOILER: They still ran their races after 10 Israeli athletes were assassinated.
One aspect of the film, contributing to its overall sense of ambivalence, is the bizarre incursion of pop-culture icons as bit characters: R. Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket (1987)—Ed O’neill, the father from Married with Children—and Kurtwood Smith of Robocop (1987)/That Seventies Show fame.
The best part of Prefontaine is its anachronism. It’s an unabashedly chill and modest movie. The soundtrack is heavy on 70s Classic Rock: Skynrd, CCR, the Who. The pacing is deliberate. And while the Olympic races are genuinely exciting, the apparent US Finland rivalry in distance running is projected through a lens of friendly sportsmanship. The interaction between teams make the Jamaica Switzerland rivalry in Cool Runnings (1993) look like something out of the Old Testament. Like the best performances of Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto manages to deliver an interesting movie, without delivering an interesting performance.