This well-meaning historical drama features a wonderful performance by James, but it oddly shifts the focus from Owens' legend and life to the inner workings of the most controversial Olympics. James, who also memorably played a young John Lewis in Selma, inhabits Owens as a natural talent who's pleasant, kind, and hardworking. He's so sweet and disciplined that even when he's unfaithful to his fiancee, Ruth (Shanice Banton), with a vain groupie, he almost immediately does the right thing and begs forgiveness for the indiscretion. But, like most everyone else here, Owens is depicted in an overly sanitized way -- uncomplicated and unthreatening. The relationship between Owens and Snyder is only contentious in one scene, giving the impression that the white coach was an enlightened man who was just somehow above the casual racism of his athletic department colleagues.
Director Stephen Hopkins takes a similar approach in depicting two highly controversial figures: Brundage, whose legacy as a sportsman and Olympic official is tarnished by rumors that he was both a Nazi sympathizer and openly racist, and Riefenstahl, who managed to survive accusation after accusation that she was a true believer in the Nazi cause, rather than just a filmmaker who benefited from Hitler's patronage. Irons plays Brundage as a perfectly oily master of the universe who knows what's going on but tells the Germans to tone down the uglier aspects of their regime for the sake of the Olympics, and van Houten portrays Riefenstahl as a director who's just coincidentally a Nazi. The director continuously interrupts the relatively tame plot of Owens' superstar college track career with behind-the-scenes drama at the AOC, where at least one Olympic official, Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), led the charge to boycott the games in solidarity with the oppressed victims of Hitler's regime. But, the film posits, sports is supposed to rise above politics -- so much so that when an NAACP official asks Owens to personally boycott the Olympics, the issue doesn't seem seriously considered. Ultimately the performances are fine, although it's hard to consider Sudeikis in a dramatic role, and the story educational, but Race is isn't quite the extraordinary narrative Owens deserves.