The late Steve Prefontaine was one of the greatest runners produced in the
United States, and one of the most abrasive. This film based on his life
makes him seem fairly unlikable, and that's one of its best qualities:
Here is a sports movie in the tradition of the best sportswriting, where
athletes are portrayed warts and all. You do not have to be nice to win
races, but you have to be good.
``Prefontaine'' opens in the 1960s, with Steve (Jared Leto) as a kid
whose short stature and ``bad hand-eye coordination'' make him the most
hapless player on the football team. Determined to be good at
something--to get even with those who dismissed him--he turns to track,
and even though he's not built like a runner and one leg is shorter than
the other, he uses sheer determination to win. Soon he's being scouted by
the legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey), who manufactures
track shoes in his garage, using his wife's waffle iron to mold the rubber
treads. Bowerman goes on to co-found Nike, and Pre goes on to hold almost
every American record at the longer distances.
Sports movies traditionally have tried to turn their heroes into
demigods. Not ``Prefontaine,'' which sees Pre as a single-minded,
self-centered, ruthless competitor. At one point, goofing around on the
track with kids, he refuses to even pretend to let a 9-year-old beat him.
He has to win even that race. When his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Locane)
wonders if that's carrying things too far, he spits out: ``All my life
people have said to me, `You're too small, Pre. You're not fast enough,
Pre. Give up your foolish dreams, Steve!' They forgot something: I have to
win. No fallback here, no great stride, no long legs--nothing!''
The movie follows Prefontaine to an NCAA championship he wins with 12
stitches in his foot (he runs an extra victory lap in his bloody shoe). It
shows him arguing with Bowerman about distance (he wants the higher
visibility of the mile; Bowerman correctly sees him at the longer
distances, where stamina and guts count for more). He qualifies for the
1972 Olympics--and then the massacre of the Israeli athletes takes place
the night before his big race. The race is eventually held, even though
Pre tells his assistant coach (Ed O'Neill) he ``can't run over the bodies
of those dead athletes.''
Does he win? You will have to see for yourself. What sets ``Prefontaine''
aside from most sports movies is that it's not about winning the big race.
It's about the life of a runner. After he returns from the Munich
Olympics, Prefontaine supports himself by bartending and lives in a mobile
home: Other nations support their athletes in style, but the rules of
American amateur sports at that time essentially required a life spent in
training, and poverty. (Much is made of the shabby quarters supplied to
U.S. athletes in Munich, while 100 adult ``officials'' live in splendor at
a luxury hotel.)
After Munich, Bowerman retires to start his track-shoe empire (Pre says
the Nike trademark ``looks like needless air resistance to me'').
Prefontaine eventually breaks the nerve of the American amateur athletic
establishment by getting his teammates (including discus champion Mac
Wilkins) to join him in an unsanctioned invitation for the Finnish
national team to visit Oregon. Accused of betraying the U.S. national
team, he tells a press conference, typically: ``To hell with love of
country; I'm looking out for me.''
``Prefontaine,'' which is smart, quirky and involving, is the first
feature film by Steve James, who directed the great sports documentary
``Hoop Dreams.'' In a sense, this is a continuation of the same story,
about how the sports establishment uses and then discards gifted young
athletes with little regard for their personal welfare.
If the two young subjects of ``Hoop Dreams'' won a victory of sorts
(they got college degrees and were able to use basketball to better their
prospects in life), Prefontaine won one, too. In the process he may have
dismantled the idea of pure amateur athletics in this country, but the
movie shows how much hypocrisy was masked by that ideal. By the end of the
film we may not like Pre (who died in a car accident), but we understand
and respect him. The movie shows an athlete for whom winning wasn't
everything--but having to win was.