Wednesday, 13 June 2007
Without Limits (1998) dir. Robert Towne
Starring: Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, Monica Potter
“Without Limits” is an under-the-radar film which unfortunately was famous only for being one of two Prefontaine films released in 1998. But it’s deserving of everyone’s attention because I believe it’s one of the best sports films ever made.
“Without Limits” is about Steve Prefontaine, a handsome and cocky track athlete who became a rockstar-like sensation for his unorthodox front-running and his record-breaking times in the long distance running. The film opens at the start of the final of the 5000m race at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It’s seen from the point of view of the live TV trailer covering the race (watch for the cameo of William Friedkin as the director of the live coverage). We then go back to the late 60’s to re-trace the path which led him to the race….
Prefontaine grew up in Coos Bay Oregon, and was a highly coveted high school athlete by the top Universities. After an expressed interest by the prestigious track program at the University of Oregon, Steve denies acceptance until he receives a personal request from the head coach Bill Bowerman. It’s an bold demand, but he gets the request, and he goes to Oregon. There he instantly becomes a star for his showboating on the track. He also butts heads with Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), both of whom have extremely stubborn wills. Bowerman wants Pre to hang with the pack to conserve energy, and gradually increase his lap times, but as Pre describes it, “the only way I know how to do win is to run out front, flat out until I have nothing left. Winning any other way is chicken-shit.”
Off the track Prefontaine also has no trouble courting the ladies, but his eye has always been on the unattainable – a bible thumping blonde named Mary played by Monica Potter. Mary, the good girl, has no desire to be a notch on Pre’s bedpost, but Pre’s persistence pays off and they find love together.
Pre makes it to the Olympics where he has to face several of the world greatest runners – including the favourite, Finland’s Lasse Viren. The race is one of the most exciting sports competitions ever filmed. Towne places his camera in all the right places, uses sharp and dramatic long-lens slo-motion shots to capture physical exertion of the runners. Towne also mashes recreated footage with actual Munich TV stock footage seamlessly. Unless you know the outcome you’ll have to watch the film to see who wins. But it’s common knowledge to everyone that Prefontaine tragically died a few years later. It’s a shame because Pre was only 24 years old and in the prime of his career.
We all know Robert Towne can write (ie. “Chinatown”), but his directorial skills are showcased in this film. As mentioned the running scenes are as exciting and suspenseful as any sporting event I’ve seen put to screen. He also dissects the race carefully to give the casual observer an idea of a runner’s strategy and what’s going through Pre’s mind as he runs.
Donald Sutherland is in fine form. As Pre’s coach, he could have played him as the typical bullheaded antagonist. But for a stubborn bull, he has a gentle quality that makes his and Pre’s frequent arguments more interesting to watch, rather than just a series of shouting matches.
Robert Towne manages to make a story of a long-distance runner into somewhat of an epic film, which also compellingly pulls in the drama of the Munich terrorism tragedy, the politics of the American Athletic Union (AAU) governing body, and most importantly, beautifying an arduous sport about mental and physical attrition. Enjoy.
PS There’s also a cleverly structured subplot about Pre and Bowerman’s role in the birth of a certain shoemaker based in Oregon…check it out.
Buy it here: Without Limits