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Without Limits

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 deserves.

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 typical champion.

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 win it."

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 consumes.

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 field.

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.