Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Prefontaine Movie Poster Image
Legendary runner's story is compelling, tragic.
  • PG-13
  • 1997
  • 107 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Pre is incredibly ambitious, competitive, and determined to win. Without the physical advantages of a tall body and perfectly proportioned legs, Prefontaine works harder to cross the finish line first. He can also be cocky, egotistical, and immature at times. But overall, Pre personifies the athlete who gives his all to his sport.


The sequence depicting the 1972 Munich Olympics covers the violence against the Israeli athletes from Pre and the American track team's point of view. The masked, gun-toting terrorists are shown from their perch on the Israeli athletes' balcony, and there is news footage explaining what happened to them. There's an accident that kills someone.


Passionate kissing, making out lying down and (clothed) in bed. Pre flirts and cheats on his first girlfriend.


Standard swear words: "s--t," "ass," "piss," "God damn," "screw," "hell," etc.


Very minimal, but one notable exception is that the Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman, was the co-founder of Nike, and they show a very early pair of Nike runing sneakers. There are a few quick glimpses of magazines Pre was on, like the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several of the scenes take place in a bar, where various college students and adults drink; a couple of parties feature beer; Pre gets drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this is a biopic of the legendary young middle-distance runner and Olympian Steve "Pre" Prefontaine. There is standard PG-13 language and a few scenes of passionate kissing and making out. The most disturbing parts of the film revolve around the 1972 Munich Olympics, as the hostage-taking of the Israeli athletes is depicted from the perspective of Prefontaine and the other members of the American athletes. The masked gunmen are shown and gunshots are heard, but the film focuses on how the violence affects Pre and the track team, not on the violence itself.

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What's the story?

PREFONTAINE was the first of two films about renowned Oregon runner Steve "Pre" Prefontaine released less than two years apart in the late 1990s. Neither biopic -- the second is Without Limits -- was a commercial success, but both brought the legendary runner, who died in a car accident at age 24, back to the mainstream media's spotlight. In Prefontaine, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) chronicles Pre's short life, from his working-class upbringing in Coos Bay, Oregon, to the last track meet he organized between the American and Finnish track clubs, as if it were a sports documentary, with his "aged" friends and family reflecting on his milestones.

Is it any good?

It's refreshing to see Pre portrayed as a flawed, overly competitive athlete who can be a huge jerk, when most sports movies glorify and idealize athletes and coaches. Pre is played by Jared Leto, who at the time seemed destined to be one Hollywood's A-list leading men. He's almost too pretty an actor to play the masculine, cocky runner, but he obviously relished the role. Pre isn't always the most likable character; he's so competitive he won't even allow children running with him to pass him, and he egotistically steals the glory from his fellow University of Oregon track athletes.

Although the primary on-screen sources are Pre's final girlfriend Nancy Alleman (Amy Locane) and his assistant coach Bill Dellinger (Ed O'Neill), the best scenes are between Pre and head Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey), a man deserving of his own biopic. Ermey, best known as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, is expert at playing coaches and officers, and his Bowerman is exactly the kind of no-nonsense, supportive man you'd expect to lead athletes to glory. Pre's personal quest for Olympic victory remained his one unrealized dream. According to the film, the horror of the Munich Games took its toll on Pre, who finished fourth in the 5K and never got another chance for the gold. James' film doesn't linger on what could've been, however. Instead, it rightfully focuses on Pre's unquenchable thirst for crossing the finish line first, which seems exactly what Pre would've wanted.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what disadvantages Prefontaine had to overcome to compete as an elite runner. What was his strategy to win? The film contends that in the 1970s, college athletes at the Olympic level suffered financially, so they could be considered "amateurs." Is that the case today? Parents can also use the film as a way to discuss the events at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the origins of Nike.

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