One of my favorite things that Hollywood occasionally does is when after ignoring a topic a concept or idea for years suddenly two studios release movies about the same topic, idea, or person. Amongst others, you’ve got Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998. There’s Tombstone and Wyatt Earp in 1993 and 1994. And then you have the pair of movies about the iconoclastic 1970’s American track star Steve Prefontaine. Today’s movie Without Limits was released by Warner Brothers a year after Disney released a year after Disney released Prefontaine. Given that both films are biographical in there is probably going to have to be a big overlap, and most reviews I’ve read about Without Limits spend a lot of time comparing it to the Disney film. I haven’t seen Prefontaine yet, so I won’t be doing that. Instead I’ll swap things around and review these films in the opposite order, because I’m sneaky like that.
Without Limits stars Billy Crudup as the 1972 Olympian known simply as Pre, and finds its focus in his relationship with University of Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman portrayed by the typically fantastic Donald Sutherland. The primary conflict comes from Bill’s attempts to get Pre to change away from his relentless front-running style, considered impossible to maintain for a middle-distance runner due to the advantages gained by drafting, and employ more strategy in his racing. Pre considers such strategic racing “chickenshit.” Believing his ability to withstand pain is enough to overcome any shortcoming in talent.
Crudup is fantastic in his performance as the uniquely charismatic Pre. Going into this film one of my real questions was about how Prefontaine had become such a popular figure. The 5000 meters is hardly an event that typically produces America’s sporting heroes. By a long shot. Yet by all accounts Pre was a figure that transcended his sport. Now I know why. Pre is clearly someone that looks at the world in a different kind of way. Convinced that he lacks talent he goes through life believing he succeeds by force of will, Pre clearly possess boundless self-confidence. He is the kind of person who challenges the status quo not because of a need to be a rebel, but simply because he can’t comprehend any reason why things should be the way they are. This is best exemplified in a few scenes dealing with his animosity towards the AAU, which prior to the establishment of the USOC held all the keys to the Olympics, and rigorously enforced their code of amateurism.
Other performances I thought were worth highlighting are Monica Potter (NBC’s Parenthood) as Pre’s primary love interest, Mary Marckx, and Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris as Oregon assistant coach Bill Dellinger.
The most important race in the film is Pre’s shot at Olympic gold at the 1972 games in Munich. Of course, this means that the elephant in the room is the horrific events surrounding the Munich Massacre. It’s a difficult line for the filmmakers to tread, because on the one hand it’s really not the story that this film is about, yet on the other hand, it is far too big to ignore. I like the way that the film deals with this, focusing on Prefontaine and his teammates as they watch the story unfold on television. Early on we learn that Pre had been raised in a German-speaking household, so the film is able to keep the focus on his subject as he interprets the German broadcasts for his teammates.
Overall Without Limits succeeds as an entertaining and inspiring film. If it feels, in some ways, incomplete this may because Prefontaine’s life itself was left so incomplete. However this incompleteness is what holds me back from calling this a “must see,” it is still well worth seeing.