tue 04/08/2020

theartsdesk Olympics: Steve Prefontaine (times two) | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Olympics: Steve Prefontaine (times two)

theartsdesk Olympics: Steve Prefontaine (times two)

Runner's too-brief life examined in back-to-back films

Jared Leto makes a dash for it in first of two films about Steve Prefontaine

Movies often come unwittingly in pairs, whether you're talking Capote and Infamous (both about Truman Capote) or Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons (both adapted from the epistolary novel by Laclos). And so it was that the late 1990s saw the release in successive years of Prefontaine (1997) and Without Limits (1998), both telling of the same American track star who died in 1975, age 24.

Here's something else that the twin biographies of Steve Prefontaine, the Oregonian Olympic hopeful, had in common: they were both flops. Quite why, precisely, is hard to fathom, and not only because a British film about two runners, Chariots of Fire, had previously won the best picture Oscar, proving that the adrenalin whoosh of life in the athletic fast lane could have a broad appeal. Both films, too, advanced the careers of a pair of charismatic talents, neither of whom went on to A-list status: actor/musician Jared Leto in Prefontaine and Broadway regular Billy Crudup in Without Limits

Billy Crudup as Steve PrefontaineIn fact, Without Limits is worth revisiting, and not just to ponder what it would have been like had co-producer Tom Cruise played the central role. (Cruise decided not to, in the end, on the basis that he was too old; Crudup is six years his junior.) But as the work of writer/director Robert Towne, one of the defining figures in the glory decade of the American cinema that was the 1970s, Without Limits follows on from Towne's similarly sports-themed Personal Best, moving from fiction to fact and on to "faction", given the way such biopics can play hard and fast with the truth. (The film gets wrong, for instance, just who it was Prefontaine was dating at the time that he died while intoxicated when his car overturned.) But as a running legend who broke multiple American records on his way to a 1976 Montreal Olympics that he didn't live to see, Prefontaine's shooting star - and abrupt end - gave him something of the status of a Buddy Holly of the world of track and field; nothing amplifies a brilliant career as much, alas, as its abrupt end. 

Whereas Prefontaine's faux-documentary feel merely makes one want to see actual footage of the man himself, Without Limits' more intimately focused narrative benefits from a shaggy-haired Crudup (pictured above), who gives off the rock star vibe you might expect from the subsequent star of Almost Famous, and his intense relationship with coach, Bill Bowerman; Donald Sutherland was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance. In the end, though, both films may have been hamstrung in commercial terms by the essentially downbeat nature of a preordained story: the tale of a fast-rising (and fast) winner on the track who way too young lost his life.

Watch the trailer for Without Limits

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