To this day when the major track running events are held, plenty of people remember the gutsy runner who owned distance running back in the day, Steve Prefontaine. In the late 90s, two decades after his death, Hollywood bizarrely made two films back-to-back about the legendary Pre.
Go Pre!, we used to yell when he ran. Steve Prefontaine was the real deal.
I attended the University of Oregon back when he was breaking all those incredible records. He was a BMOC (Big Man On Campus) because of his talent for sure, but also because of the way he wore it, publicly and privately.
As a native Oregonian I had seen him win the state high school two-mile in a barn-burning race when I was just a kid and stayed interested through his dominance for the UO in track. I remember working at a local TV station as an intern at the time of his death and getting the call in the KVAL newsroom. Later, I used to log a lot of miles running on the wood-chip trail dedicated to him, “Pre’s Trail.” I can’t claim that I knew him, but I saw him on campus (vividly remember watching him chug some beer at Duffy’s Tavern) and when he ran at Hayward field during my freshman year, my dorm (Douglass-Walton) faced the track and we literally watched and cheered from our room window.
Go Pre!, we yelled, and we all thought we knew him.
Damn, he was good. So good, in fact, that it’s a valid question as to whether any film could truly capture his essence. Maybe that’s why they made two.
I don’t imagine too many people are ever going to watch both of these films so our Smackdown answers a practical question: if you want to see one single film that captures the truth and character of Steve Prefontaine, which one should you see?
THE FIRST FILM: Prefontaine (1997)
When it came out in 1997, Prefontaine was seen as a pretty straightforward biopic effort. Jared Leto got the starring role and former Marine drill sergeant F. Lee Ermy got the plum role of his track coach Bill Bowerman. It focuses a lot of its late firepower on Prefontaine’s stubborn (and correct) battle with the Amateur Athletic Union that dictated the terms under which Americans could or could not run.
This first film came from writer-director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and employs the device of the faux-documentary (actors aged up, talking about their relationships with Pre in the past tense) as its framework. It is, frankly, a little worshipful of its subject matter but you could argue if its subject matter wasn’t worth worshipping in some way, nobody would want to make one movie about it, let alone two.
In any case, what you get with Prefontaine is a good sense of what made him tick as an icon and a leader of other athletes. As far as the requisite love-life sub-plots go, this film goes for seeing Pre ditch his high school girlfriend who came to college with him in favor of a woman who also ran track. The production was centered up at the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma, standing in for the University of Oregon in Eugene.
THE SECOND FILM: Without Limits (1998)
People in Eugene, Oregon, where Pre ran, probably favor Without Limits which came out in 1998, mostly because the film was shot on location there. This film came from a team that included Tom Cruise as an executive producer and writer-director Robert Towne (Chinatown), plus a great performance as Pre by Billy Crudup and a nuanced one from Donald Sutherland playing Bill Bowerman, Pre’s college track coach. This is the movie that wants to get in the head of Pre, analyze what made him a brilliant runner, and it wants to elevate Bowerman to a Zen-leader in the Phil Jackson mode, and focus on the sometimes rocky relationship between the two.
As far as romance goes, this film gives the true love role to Monica Potter who looks so much like a blonde Julia Roberts that you would swear they are related.
The mission of Without Limits is not merely biographical, though. It believes that Steve Prefontaine singlehandedly juiced up the sport of track, and that he did it by being one of our modern athletes, a little bit arrogant and opinionated, and that these qualities made him great.
Billy Crudup had me from “Go” because his Prefontaine seemed to have the masculinity and toughness that seemed right. In contrast, it took me a very long time to warm up to Jared Leto in this role, especially the early scenes where he seemed to be just too damn pretty and metro-sexual to match the Pre of my own memories. However, as Prefontaine marched through its story, I found myself more-and-more accepting of Leto’s performance and now, on balance, both Leto and Crudup seem to have nailed certain specific qualities. This started out as a win for Crudup, but settles finally into a tie.
As for track coach Bill Bowerman, Donald Sutherland in Without Limits was mentioned for an Oscar nomination and actually made off with a Golden Globe nomination. His is a wonderful performance but throughout he is always movie star Donald Sutherland in the role. This is not the case with R. Lee Ermey of Prefontaine who manages to feel real, authentic and more like what you expect from the real Bowerman. I would have been thrilled to hear some of the words from the Robert Towne Without Limits coming from his mouth instead of Sutherland’s.
Check out the poster campaigns above. After Prefontaine bombed at the box office in 1997 with a poster that emphasized running, it looks like 21 months later the film producers of Without Limits decided to go with romance. Which is crazy because that’s hardly what their film is about. So much for truth-in-packaging.
The girls of the dualing Prefontaine films are so incredibly different that you have to wonder how that happened. Neither one is fully accurate. One of the best analyses of what’s true and what’s not (girlfriends and other issues) is in the Sports Hollywood web-site. Here’s how they put it:
“There are distinct differences in the films, because each story’s point of view comes from a different track coach and a different girlfriend, all of whom claim to be the biggest influence on Pre’s life. Prefontaine was inspired from recollections of Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger and Pre’s last girlfriend, Nancy Alleman. Without Limits, on the other hand, used as its consultants Oregon’s other track coach, Bill Bowerman (who went on to create Nike shoes), and second-to-last girlfriend Mary Marckx.”
There’s reality and film reality, of course. Monica Potter, Pre’s gal-pal in Without Limits, looks like a movie star playing a role, and together with Crudup’s Pre they don’t really seem to generate any real connection at all to each other. On the other hand, Amy Locane as love-interest Nancy Alleman really made sense to me as the kind of woman he’d probably be most attracted to. And, given that she was his last girlfriend, represents the best look at the direction he was headed.
Something that is inexplicable in Without Limits is the way it treats Pre’s parents. Basically, in this film, he has no father, only a mother. Was this a rights issue, and did Prefontaine wrap up the dad’s story, leaving Without Limits to feel they’d get sued if they used him? Who knows? All I can tell you is that he’s got both mom and dad in Prefontaine which is the way it was.
What a lot of this comparison comes down to, though, is tone. Without Limits feels a little more important than Prefontaine despite the earlier film’s pseudo-documentary look because, I assume, Robert Towne has a slightly steadier hand than Steve James when it comes to helming a production. But Prefontaine manages to feel a lot less choppy and when it goes to the 1972 Olympics (where the Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists), it feels like a completely told story, as does its attempt to explain the battle with the AAU. In a nutshell, Prefontaine builds to a political crusade about the rights of athletes while Without Limits builds to a grudging understanding between coach and star athlete.
Of course, both films end with Prefontaine’s death, driving a sports car, under the influence, in 1975. His car overturned and his chest was literally crushed, extinguishing his incredible lung-power forever. In Without Limits, you understand this happened after taking his friend Frank Shorter home. In Prefontaine, you understand this happened at the celebration of the track meet he staged in Eugene between Finnish and American athletes to tweak the AAU. One is incidental, the other is important.
The thing that probably held both films back from box office success, though, is that dramatically they are pre-destined to literally run into that brick wall. There is no victory waiting for Pre, only death, and since he never got to go to the 1976 Olympics to avenge his 1972 loss to Lasse Vieren, there is not even that dramatic accomplishment. It’s a true story but, in the end, like La Bamba or The Buddy Holly Story, you know it’s not going to end well.
Before you read on to see which film wins my vote in this photo-finish race Smackdown, be sure to vote your own opinion in our own People’s Smack poll above.
About a decade after this doppleganger box-office match-up, my wife and I had a Hallmark Channel film shooting out here in Los Angeles, Chasing a Dream, about a high-school athlete who decides to go for a sub-four minute mile. During the time we were polishing up our screenplay’s last draft before production, we looked for a little inspiration and watched both Prefontaine and Without Limits within a couple of days of each other. It was like a film school assignment to see what different production teams and actors could do with essentially the same source material.
As far as film school assignments go, it would a really interesting challenge if somebody imported both films into their iMac and cut them together using Final Cut Pro. Because the honest truth is that each version beats the other in a few things and loses in a few others. Seeing both really would give you a clearer picture but, of course, that wasn’t the Smackdown and telling you to do that would be cheating.
It is probably true that Billy Crudup is better in the role, that Without Limits looks like the slightly more expensive filmmaking effort, and that it was shot on the University of Oregon campus which gives it an even greater sense of accuracy. Yet, somehow, it manages to feel more incomplete — from the small details like never showing Pre’s dad ever — to the larger issue of turning Bowerman into the Zen Master he never totally was — to the less-than-comprehensible stakes in the 1972 Olympics race. If Prefontaine had been made with Billy Crudup, it would have been closer to the right movie. This real-world decision, though, is a very tough (and sure to be controversial) call for me but if you’re going to see just one, it probably should be Without Limits because it most accurately captures the inside passion that made Pre the champion he was, even if it gets a lot of the other facts wrong.
By the way, the photo you see on the above right, that’s Pre as a high schooler at the State Championship race I saw him win on May 24, 1968. He and Mark Hiefield fought each other the entire race and it ended with Pre taking it in 9:02.7. Pure guts, that’s what he had.