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“Race” is a great film to open this Olympic year

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 1.20.43 PMVerdict: Well-done film of a very interesting story about a man’s quest for gold. Perfect film to get excited for Rio 2016 this summer.

Grade: A

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The Olympic Games are coming in August, but sport stories are already invading movie theaters. “Race” is the first Olympic themed film of the year and one you won’t want to miss.

Based on the real story of Jesse Owens, one of the greatest track and field athletes to have ever lived, “Race” shows the challenges a man faces on his way to a gold medal in Germany in 1936, where Adolf Hitler is trying to impose his master race on society.

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“Race” is an extremely enjoyable film. The scenes flow naturally, and it’s hard to notice time go by. Like in a 100-meter race, there’s barely a second to blink. The most important factor here is the acting and the way the characters develop.

Jesse (Stephan James) is a kid leaving home for the first time as he gets on a bus to Ohio State. He’s tough, but also humble: an interesting mix, which is played extremely well by James. When he meets the track and field coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), he immediately realizes he will need to be even tougher, but also ready to learn.

Sudeikis is a revelation in this film. Sudeikis transforms from the comedic and silly characters of films like “Horrible Bosses” to a serious, inspirational coach in “Race.” There’s never any hint that he’s out of place here. His character is dynamic, not always letting us fully grasp him, but revealing himself to us more and more as the film goes on.

The screenplay is solid, and its greatest quality lies in the fact that there is drama in the right places, not in the common places. As Jesse and his friend enter on the bus, they sit in the colored section. There is no dramatic cut to highlight this action, nor overwhelming music. It is done elegantly, and it is in plain sight for us to see. It isn’t the film’s job to hammer this scene on us. It’s our duty to keep our eyes open.

The same elegance is present when Jesse gets to Germany and asks where the dormitories for colored people are. “There are none,” someone says, as we, the audience, remember the scene on the bus. While Germany is pushing away Jews and minorities, there is, at least here, a small sense of equality, which the nature of sports bring along. Jesse, in one scene, declares his love for the sport, saying that, for 10 seconds, everybody is free and also the same.

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The flow of the film also depends on the background story about the United States almost pulling out of the 1936 games because of all the negative propaganda coming from Germany. Seeing the US Olympic Association trying to decide whether or not to send athletes to the games adds tension to the film, as we wonder if all of Jesse’s efforts will be worthless. This part of the story helps the pace of the movie, which could eventually slow down had the focus been just on one character the whole time.

The characters in “Race” feel real. They make mistakes and must account for them. When Jesse cheats on his girlfriend, mother of his daughter, we see that he also has weaknesses, flaws and desires. When he comes back to ask for forgiveness, we stand with him in the rain waiting for her to leave work. Jesse is an hero, yes, but above all he is human, and the movie never lets us forget that.

It is all the more powerful when we stand with him as he enters the Olympic stadium and gets ready to run. There are no fast cuts here. We take in the entire atmosphere, and we anxiously wait for the race as Jesse ties one shoe, then, slow and methodically, the other. The tension that this sequence brings is incredible, due to great directing and editing.

“Race” ends as it began: elegant and succinct. Here’s a sports film that doesn’t rely on the Hollywood heroic winning of the final scene to draw emotion from us. The movie goes much beyond the race, and that’s where it succeeds. It’s easy to film just a race. The trick is getting us involved enough, in which our care and support for our hero doesn’t just end when the screen fades to black.