Track Star's Story Has Winning Edge

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Track Star's Story Has Winning Edge


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Steve Prefontaine, the charismatic Oregon distance runner whose career was prematurely ended by a fatal car accident in 1975, when he was only 24, has evidently beckoned to movie producers as a promising biographical subject for the past two decades. He gets a belated double homage this year. The current "Prefontaine," with Jared Leto of "My So-Called Life" in the title role, will be followed by "Pre" and Billy Crudup.

"Prefontaine" reunites Steve James, the documentary filmmaker who made "Hoop Dreams," with the resourceful cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Although their production appears makeshift in certain semidocumentary respects, the chronicle reveals distinctive, irresistible human-interest appeal.

Indeed, there may be enough angles and sidelights tucked into Pre's short life to justify rival biopics. The character of the hero takes an unusual and attractive set of zigzags to emotional maturity. Depicted as an overcompensating runt, Steve enters Oregon as a distance phenom and proceeds to hog the available limelight. The pivotal change takes place when he participates in the 1972 Olympic Games at Munich. The son of a German-born mother (Lindsay Crouse), Steve has a special reason for brooding about the time and place of his only Olympic appearance. His event, the 5,000 meters, is delayed by the murders of Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists at the Olympic Village. The strategy devised by coaches Bill Bowerman (played by R. Lee Ermey) and Bill Dellinger (Ed O'Neill) becomes untenable once the race begins. Pre makes a bold attempt to exhaust his rivals in the final lap but falls short and finishes fourth.

The movie has its priorities in the right balance: The deaths at Munich obviously overshadow the hero's bid for Olympic glory. The surprising aftermath to this setback is that Pre grows up. The process seems to be irrevocable when he's greeted back in Eugene, Ore., by his girlfriend Nancy Alleman (Amy Locane). When she tries to comfort him by saying a street is sure to be named after him, Pre quips, "Sure, they can call it Fourth Street."

Attempting to sustain his amateur status for another four years, Pre decides to challenge the authority of the Amateur Athletic Union, then the ruling organization for post-collegiate athletes with Olympic hopes.

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