Great athletes are of life and larger than it. Their personal dramas are
acted out in public, their starkly outlined victories and defeats
written in large, unmistakable letters. We watch their struggles with
something like awe, envying, perhaps, an existence where questions of
winning and losing are brutally clear-cut.
Distance runner Steve Prefontaine was one of the premier American
athletes of his age. Competing for the University of Oregon, he was the
only man ever to hold the U.S. records in every distance between 2,000
and 10,000 meters, and in the 1972 Munich Olympics, he was a key player
in perhaps the most memorable 5,000 meters ever held.
A confident, charismatic performer who rarely ran without partisan
crowds chanting "Pre, Pre, Pre," Prefontaine's unusual life calls out to
be filmed, and several pictures, including a documentary called "Fire on
the Track," have been made. Last year's disappointing Jared Leto-starring
"Prefontaine" was little more than an illustrated scrapbook, but
"Without Limits," starring Billy Crudup and written and directed by
Robert Towne, is the exciting, thoughtful and empathetic film the man
What makes "Without Limits" involving and unconventional is that
Towne (who co-wrote the script with Olympic marathoner and Sports
Illustrated writer Kenny Moore, who knew Pre) presents a Prefontaine
who, all his victories and records notwithstanding, stood apart from the
Though it sounds heretical, Prefontaine, who died in 1975, held
himself to a higher standard than simple victory. For him, races were
works of art created by unbearable effort, as well as opportunities to
test his own personal capacities and the limits of human endurance.
Helping to understand Pre's mind-set is a man who initially did not
comprehend him at all, his coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland).
"From the beginning," Bowerman says in a typically lean but telling
piece of voice-over, "I tried to change him. He tried not to change.
That was our relationship."
"Without Limits" opens at a defining moment of Prefontaine's career,
the Munich Olympics, where Pre faces one of the strongest fields in the
Games, including the intimidating Finnish distance runner Lasse Viren.
"I'd like it to come down to a pure guts race," Pre says with typical
bravado in a pre-event interview. "If it does, I'm the only one who can
The film then flashes back to 1969, when even as a high school
competitor from Coos Bay, Ore., Prefontaine's front-running style, his
obsession with staying out by himself and far away from the crowd, was
already in evidence.
Also fully developed was Pre's problematic personality. Overflowing
with the unself-conscious arrogance of youth and physical ability,
driven even by the standards of world-class athletes, Prefontaine was a
creature of almost feral intensity.
As difficult as he could be, however, Pre often won people over, and
one of the graces of the strong performance by Crudup ("Inventing the
Abbots") is that he finds the irresistible boyishness and likability
that coexisted with the cockiness of a high school senior who refused to
consider the University of Oregon unless storied coach Bowerman, a hater
of recruiting, personally indicated he wanted the young man to attend.
Bowerman, hardly a pushover, was a master psychologist, a mind games
expert who joined an iron will to withering irony and took obedience
from his runners as a given. Sutherland, also a man of considerable
experience (the press material notes appearances in more than 80 films),
hasn't completely involved himself in all his parts but he's done so
here. The result is a commanding, almost hypnotic performance that is
among the actor's best.
A shrewd and knowledgeable leader whose shoe sense led to the
founding of Nike, Bowerman was initially frustrated by Prefontaine's
front-running, a style he felt would lead to disaster at the
international level because of the extra energy that mode of running
In a conventional sports film, this clash of Prefontaine's
unstoppable force and Bowerman's immovable object would be resolved by
the premium both men put on winning. Here, it's more complex--in fact
almost the opposite--as Pre's insistence that victory isn't worth
anything if it's not achieved by running all out all the time was a
source of intense frustration to his coach. Finally, it's the truth and
honesty of both men's intensity, not their specific beliefs, that forms
the bond between them as the Munich Olympics approach.
Since he wrote and directed "Personal Best," his debut film as a
director in 1982, running has been something of an obsession with Towne,
and his understanding of the psychology and nuances of the sport is a
key asset here. Working with master cinematographer Conrad Hall (seven
Oscar nominations), who used intricate combinations of lenses to capture
the nuances of competition, Towne's also given "Without Limits" a vivid
feel for the grinding physicality of this most primal sport.
Towne's most important contribution, aside from his gift for
structure and willingness to direct this story in a classic,
straight-ahead manner, is the power of his words. Because "Without
Limits" is not written in a way that calls attention to itself, because
the language is not showy, it's easy to miss how much of an
accomplishment it is to find beauty and poetry in spareness and to tell
an in many ways familiar story without lapsing into cliches.
Steve Prefontaine had other things on his mind besides the art of
running, and "Without Limits" explores them as well. Pre spoke out
against what he saw as the sham of American amateurism and helped spark
a movement that eventually changed the shape of international track and
Given his youth and charisma, Pre was suitably attractive to women,
but the key romantic relationship of his life, with fellow student Mary
Marckx (Monica Potter), was, once again, different from the norm. It was
a bond as much spiritual as physical and, like Prefontaine's connection
with Bowerman, it had the glow of the singular that marked everything
about this young man's life.