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The torch has crossed the country of Australia and the Olympic Games have begun. While we are in such an Olympic mood, it seemed appropriate to review Without Limits, one of the best Olympic movies about one of the best Olympic athletes in history. I should get a medal for using the word Olympics that many times.
Bill Crudup (soon to be known for the Cameron Crowe movie, Almost Famous) stars as Steve Prefontaine, a legendary American runner who set the sport on its ear in the early 1970's. Set during that time, this cocky, arrogant and talented athlete is the best runner in the nation. Pre (as he is known to friends and fans) joins the University of Oregon track team so he can run and learn from the best, Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), an eccentric coach who designs and produces the team's running shoes using a waffl1 iron in his kitchen.
Bowerman sees Pre's potential, but fears his daring running style and attitude will hold him back. Even though Pre owns just about every distance running record, Bowerman knows there is trouble ahead when Pre has a chance for the Gold Medal at the 1972 Olympics.
Will Pre win the gold?
As you probably remember, Atlanta was the Host City of the Olympics back in 1996. This movie, originally titled Pre, was made with hopes that Olympic fever would grip the country as we got to know new American heroes and wanted to learn more about the obscure ones. However, Touchstone pictures beat the Tom Cruise/Paula Wagner production team to the theaters with their 1996 film, Prefontaine. Without Limits eventually had a small release in 1997, but quickly was relegated to home video. That's too bad, because it is a fine film.
First, it's a great story. Directed and written by Robert Towne (with an assist from former Pre teammate Kenny Moore), Without Limits covers the most important moments in Prefontaine's life, while focusing on their impact on the lives of those involved. This is what sets this film above other biopics, which either overly focus on the facts or ignore them to delve deeply into "the real man" behind the legend. It is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Towne, the man who wrote Chinatown, knows a thing or two about screenplays. However, I still think he made a huge mistake.
The film only briefly touches on Prefontaine's battle with the Amateur Athletic Union. During that time, the AAU controlled track and field competition and other amateur sports. The organization determined which athletes could compete against one another and under what conditions. Athletes had to get permission from the AAU to travel and compete in events or risk the prospect of losing eligibility for the Olympics. The AAU would set up these meets just like any other sporting event - with a paying crowd. Pre led a rebellion against the organization because he felt it did not properly compensate the athletes (who needed the money to train) became rich in its own right and exerted too much power over the athletes. Many complained that they wanted to battle the best in their sport, but were stymied by the AAU. Eventually, the organization was disbanded.
Towne sacrifices this battle so he can dedicate more time in the film to a love story. This is a shame since the love story is weak and the AAU battle made Prefontaine more than just another great athlete. He became a legendary rebel for this fight, but we aren't able to learn enough about it to appreciate it.
Second, Crudup is great as the cocky, but lovable hero. He is able to show us the many sides of Prefontaine from the cocky runner to the philanderer to the man who can't have the woman he loves to the fighter who wants to win more than anything else in the world. His performance would be the best in the film if it wasn't for the legendary Donald Sutherland.
Sutherland plays Bill Bowerman, the father-like coach who tries to teach Pre how to compete and how to be a man. Sutherland gives us a chance to see the legend's mystical leadership style as well as the conflict he feels over Pre's performance at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He lets us see that the coach loves Pre even though he drives him crazy.
Some of you might find the word legend a little too strong a description of Bill Bowerman, but his contribution to sports may be even greater than Steve Prefontaine. Trying to find an edge for his team, Bowerman would design and produce the team's running shoes. His methods were odd and the design was radical. As I mentioned earlier, Bowerman used his wife's waffl1 iron to make the shoes' soles in a waffl1 pattern, so they would distribute a runner's weight in a more efficient manner. Later on in life, he would be the founder of a little shoemaking company we now know as Nike. And that, my friends, is the rest of the story.
The movie also stars Monica Potter - the woman I hope will someday be the future Mrs. William Waffle. Check it out on video if you plan on watching a major Olympic event on NBC, but have the suspense ruined because you heard the results beforehand.
Directed by Robert Towne
Written by Robert Towne and Kenny Moore
Billy Crudup Steve Prefontaine
Donald Sutherland ... Bill Bowerman
Judith Ivey ... Barbara
Monica Potter .. Mary
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