To begin with, there’s a lot of standard sports-movie myth-making to get through. James is quietly charming as Owens, who possesses unnatural calm and focus from the first minutes of the movie. It’s hard to visually dramatize the skill of running very fast—the simple fact of Owens’s greatest achievements was that they occurred so quickly—so James makes Owens seem poised to bolt at any minute. When he isn’t running or jumping on the track, he’s a reserved figure, so much of the film’s early action is handed to Sudeikis, who plays Larry Snyder, Owens’s tough-talking coach at Ohio State.
Most of the film’s first and second acts are predictable. Owens and Snyder rub each other the wrong way at first, but quickly offer a grudging respect; there are training montages and scenes establishing the abuse Owens faced from other students and coaches at the school. Then, success strikes, and the road to the Olympics beckons. Too often, Race’s script (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) seems content to merely check the biopic boxes without fully fleshing out its subjects. A tangent about Owens’s brief college dalliance with another woman is a half-hearted attempt to give him some flaws, but he quickly returns to his high-school sweetheart and marries her (they stayed married for 45 years until his death in 1980).
Meanwhile, the larger Olympic story is playing out in parallel. Jeremy Irons plays the industrialist Avery Brundage, who pushed for America’s participation in the Berlin games while giving a determined blind eye to Nazi Germany’s bigotry and terror, which he witnesses first-hand in the film. William Hurt makes some principled speeches as his opponent in the American Olympic Committee, and Glynn Turman shows up as the NAACP official Harry Davis, who asks Owens not to attend in 1936 as a symbolic protest against global racism. The film tries to give Owens’s decision its proper weight, even though viewers know what he’ll choose, but this saggy second act merely amounts to everyone giving a lot of unnecessary speeches.
The action in Berlin is much more engrossing, but jarringly so. What has largely been Owens’s story, with some historical window dressing, suddenly draws several other major figures into its orbit. There’s a whole subplot about the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), and her efforts to make her famed propaganda documentary Olympia in uneasy collaboration with the Nazis (a topic that’s far too complicated for the brief treatment Race’s script gives it). Germany’s racist propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) also makes an appearance, anchoring every scene he’s in with terrifying, psychotic calm. There are even glimpses of Hitler over his shoulder, although the film smartly avoids trying to fully capture his personality onscreen.