Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Without Limits

"Without Limits" (Robert Towne, 1998) I've passed "Pre's Rock" a couple of times in my rare drives up to the peak of Laurel Hill in Eugene, Oregon. The shoes are always there. Running shoes cast off, like the ones Steve Prefontaine burned through in his short track career. And because it was a short career, with so many landmarks along the way, the story couldn't help but be a candidate for the "striving path" sub-genre of film that is meant to inspire. It couldn't help it so much that two "Prefontaine" movies made it to the screen in one year, one from Disney and one from Paramount* through Tom Cruise's production company with different authors and a different perspective on the man's life.**

Of the two, I wanted to tackle
Robert Towne's film first. I respect Towne's writing and he bats 50% directing--he's usually at his "Personal Best" doing sports films. There will be differences of style and performance, of course. Billy Crudup's Prefontaine is a bit of a prima donna in need of humility, and Donald Sutherland gives just the right sense of bat-shit menace that the coach Bowerman character would have to project just to get through the runner's inward-looking radar. Evidently, there are factual differences—the Disney film focusses less on Bowerman than another coach (who was involved in the production), and this film would have you believe that the character Monica Potter plays is Prefontaine's true love (despite her no-sex policy), even though he was dating someone else at the time (involved with the Disney production) of his death. And here, Prefontaine wasn't drinking at this party before he swerved out of control on that winding switch-back of a road that's difficult to negotiate under the best of circumstances.

Okay. Maybe.

But "
Without Limits" gets the story priorities right, because there are two fascinating characters in the Prefontaine story and it has nothing to do with his love-life and everything to do with his obsesion: the story has to be about Prefontaine's relationship with Bill Bowerman. Both men were obsessed with different aspects of running: Pre was all about "will" and the mind, while Bowerman was about inches of stride, good shoes and the politics of pace. In this story, these two guys need each other to realize their dreams—Prefontaine to win races beyong his brute force, and Bowerman to work on the perfect subject. Yes, Bowerman made his team's shoes for them with his own design, and his wife's waffle-iron—he is, after all, the corner-stone of the Nike Empire. Bowerman's calculations became a part of the Prefontaine running mind-set, and Prefontaine's take-no-prisoners attitude moves Bowerman from his porch into business. It's a cliche to say it, but the two completed each other, and makes the story more about growth and change than crossing the finish line.

If that's the only difference between the two movies,
"Without Limits" wins decidedly.

Pre-eminent runner and Bowerman-Nike dad

* Jared Leto played Prefontaine in that one, and R. Lee Ermey played Bowerman.

* Hollywood's predilection for stabbing itself in the foot by releasing competing films on the same subject is not new: a long-in-gestation article on the phenomenon has been in the hopper here for awhile. I'd be panicky about getting it out, but there's always another story of dueling projects--the latest being competing All-Star "King Lear's," one starring Anthony Hopkins and one starring Al Pacino. Every actor wants to play Lear, I can understand that. But, I just read that there are two movies in development about Luis Escobar. Really? Is he worth two movies? "When will they ever learn?"

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