Same story, new day. This time I’m looking at 1997’s Prefontaine. Produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures label, and starring Jared Leto as Pre. It would be impossible for me to review this without comparing it to Without Limits. So I’m not going to try that.
As a film Prefontaine seems to take a wider picture of the world around Steve Prefontaine at the cost of losing some focus on the man himself. Leto’s Pre is still undoubtedly the center of the film, but he lacks the uniquely charismatic fire that Billy Crudup would bring to the role a year later. Leto is a bit more mild, a bit more a part of the world than was Crudup. This greater connection to the world does allow the viewer a greater sense of the events surrounding Pre’s career. But we still get the sense that Pre is following his own path mostly immune to the course of history, except when he’s making it.
The role of Oregon head coach Bill Bowerman is cast radically differently this time, with R. Lee Ermey portraying the legendary coach/Nike co-founder. Ermey performs well in the role but is no Donald Sutherland, so it’s not really a fair comparison. The relationship between Pre and Bill does not get nearly the screen time as it would in Without Limits. On the other hand Ed O’Neil has a much larger role as Bowerman’s assistant/successor Bill Dellinger than Dean Norris would have in the Warner Brothers version.
Rounding out the cast are Amy Locane as Nancy Alleman and Laurel Holloman as Elaine Finley, a pair of Pre’s love-interests. There is no mention of Mary Marckx in this film, although apparently all three characters were based on actual people. Without Limits certainly casts a better light on how this might be.
This film also gives a good deal more development to Prefontaine’s Oregon discus star Mac Wilkins. Wilkins, who would go on to win a gold medal in 1976, and a silver in 1984, is initially portrayed as being somewhat jealous or resentful when his own accomplishments are overlooked in the rock-star aura created by Pre.
When dealing with the horrific events surrounding the Munich Massacre, this film makes more of an effort to incorporate the events of the hostage stand-off into their story. Including a scene where several of the athletes admit to one another that while they feel for the athletes being held hostage, they can’t help but feel ripped off by having their games so interrupted. This is ignoble and yet a completely human reaction, but a sentiment that it would be easy for a filmmaker to leave out. So I have to give director Steve James credit for exploring such moments. Once the crisis has passed Prefontaine’s competitive spirit is soon stirred up when Dellinger mentions that his competitors who had run in other events prior to the suspension of the games will have had an extra day to recuperate before the 5000 meter final. Again, this is a petty concern in the face of the human tragedy marring the games, but is none the less, a legitimate concern within the context of an athletic competition.
This film also devotes more energy to Steve’s clash with the bodies then governing Olympic sports in the United States. Illustrating much more of the public campaign organized by Prefontaine and his teammates in the name of better competition and better treatment for athletes hampered by overly strict amateurism requirements. Kurtwood Smith is an excellent foil as Curtis Cunningham, the head of the Amateur Track Union. He really comes across as the kind of self-satisfied jerk that is in need of a good face-punching.
In the end, I’d have to say that this movie is worth watching, with the caveat that Without Limits is the better film. Prefontaine may technically be a more complete story, but in retrospect that incompleteness in Without Limits, reflects well on the incompleteness of a life cut-short while still on the ascent. If you’re only going to see one of the two big-screen interpretations of the Steve Prefontaine story, see Crudup’s. But if you’ve seen Without Limits, and want to see more of the character, Prefontaine will be more than satisfying.