Film: A magnificent failure

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture



Since his death in 1975 at the age of 24, the long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine has risen so high in the pantheon of American sporting heroes that three films already have been made about his short life. The first of them to be shown in this country is Robert Towne's Without Limits, a sober, reflective biopic that casts Prefontaine - Pre - as an almost visionary figure, an athlete who professed not to care about winning unless he'd given his best. This rather unAmerican notion was echoed in the film's indifferent domestic performance at the box-office last year.

This is actually the second running movie Towne has directed - his debut film Personal Best (1982) was admired by, among others, Pauline Kael - yet his reputation rests on his screenwriting credits of the early Seventies. I owe some of my happiest moments in the cinema to Towne's cheeringly profane dialogue in The Last Detail, and his screenplay for Chinatown still ranks as a masterpiece of insinuation and guile. In recent years he has taken to script-doctoring major-league hits (Mission Impossible and Crimson Tide among them), his last outing as director the undervalued Tequila Sunrise (1988).

In Without Limits Towne sets up an Oedipal conflict between the gifted young runner Pre (Billy Crudup) and the coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), who wants to inculcate tactics into his star pupil. Initially, one's instinct is to side with the wily older man, whose first instruction to his team of runners seems absolutely spot-on: get a haircut. (It's 1970, and the Richard Beckinsale over-the-ears look is the rage). What's more, Prefontaine seems to strut around so cockily in these early scenes that one assumes he'll have to be taken down a peg, just so he can make room for the "personal growth" on which every American success story is predicated.

As the coach sees it, Prefontaine is too eager to lead the race - if he sat among the pack for a while he'd have more left in the engine when it came to the last lap. His words fall by the wayside as Pre starts breaking track records at will; this guy isn't just a talented athlete, he's a one-off. In fact, he disdains the very idea of talent - to his mind, it's all about will, and an inhumanly high pain threshold. At one point he cuts his foot and is assumed unable to run in a college heat: he declares himself fit, wins the race, and is stretchered off the track, the foot soaked in blood.

Pretty soon we get used to the sight of stadium crowds cheering on Pre as he breasts another tape, notches up another record, a legend in the making. But the man himself remains opaque. "You're a mystery to me," the coach tells him more than once, and we hardly know him better by the end of the film than we did at the beginning. As played by Billy Crudup, he's a whippet-lean jock with a lopsided curtain of brown-blond hair; he has the high cheekbones and clear-eyed gaze of a male model, yet he seems quite without physical vanity. (He spoils the effect later with a ratty moustache.) Crudup doesn't go for showiness and delivers some of his lines almost as an afterthought. His habit of seeming to snap out of a dream is disconcerting; he has the look of someone guarding a secret, perhaps the secret of his own genius.

Towne also wants to present him as a man of passion. The anger which occasionally breaks to the surface isn't to do with personal rivalry but institutional meddling - his battle with the blazered amateur authorities struck important historical blows for the status of American athletes. Yet digging any deeper into his character draws a blank. His standing as college heart-throb is plausible enough - he courts the girls with the Adidas trainers he gets free - yet the romance he initiates with Mary (Monica Potter) feels pro forma, a mere digression from the rampant individualism of Prefontaine the world-beater. You sense Towne's impatience to get back to the track and film his man in heroic slo-mo, his cheeks pumping softly beneath the glaze of concentration, the nervous backward glance at the pack, the shoulders thrown back - it's a sight we become very used to over two hours.

Without Limits is a cultured and thoughtful piece of work, yet its stop- start rhythm never truly quickens the senses and, given Towne's track record as a writer, it's surprisingly humourless. The picture feels somehow boxed in, and even its roof-raising moments are muted - air-punching yahoos are few and far between. I think this might be a roundabout way of suggesting that it's a little dull.

Yet there's also something perversely admirable about a sports movie in which the tradition of the triumphant climax - in this case it ought to have been Pre's performance at the Munich Olympics in 1972 - here is turned on its head. Magnificent failure is something we tend to enjoy on this side of the Atlantic, but you sit up and take notice when the Americans get in on the act.

What's more, there's a cameo during those Munich Olympics no student of sport, or indeed broadcasting, will want to miss. Towne cuts between the recreation of Pre's most famous race and contemporary footage of the event culled from our own BBC with commentary from - who else? - David Coleman. "Prefontaine, a cocky American, and a cult figure in the States," he says, the point at which other commentators would move on. Not Coleman. "He's sort of... an athletic Beatle." Like the man said, talent has nothing to do with it.