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Without Limits (1998) -vs- Prefontaine (1997)

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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.

The Scorecard

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.

Smack Classix Week: Rise of the Doppelgangers badge

The Decision

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.

PrefontaineIt 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.

About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of "Movie Smackdown." While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
Contact: Website

43 Comments on Without Limits (1998) -vs- Prefontaine (1997)

  1. I FINALLY watched “Prefontaine” and came looking for some critical comparison. Very good analysis–thank you. As a former cross-country runner I had to laugh that neither film gave ANY time to that aspect of his college running career, even though it was in some ways more amazing than his track performances. Ah, the glamour of X-C! 😉

  2. i did not even know there was another prefontaine movie until i found this here, and i have watched Prefontaine 5 times, thanks

  3. I can’t get over the fact that “Without Limits” opens in Munich in 1972, with the John Williams “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” playing in the background. Too bad the Williams piece was written in 1984.

    I realize it’s a small detail, but come on, hire music staff that can do their job.

    • Really?…that is your complaint…you are probably devastated that the music for the movie Patton was written 40 years after WWII…..I feel for you

  4. Without Limits was showing on Cinemax the other day. I watched the final 30 minutes over the holiday and recorded another showing and watched the film start to finish last night. I also found Prefontaine on demand (thanks Directtv) and watched that the day before.

    I actually like both films and am hard pressed to choose one over the other. Unlike some of the comments, I felt both Leto and Crudup were very convincing in their portrayal of Pre, at least based on the books I’ve read, the people I’ve met who knew him (including his sister) and the Fire on the Track doc. As a long time runner, it seemed clear that both were well trained and from what I read each was able to turn quarters in the mid 60’s so in that regard they were convincing. I think the Olympic race footage from WL was a bit more comprehensive and probably better. Prefontaine had some flubs with the US team watching the Jim Mckay broadcast in their rooms, which was highly doubtful in 1972. WL showed them watching the German broadcast and Pre used what I presume was his bi-lingual capabilities to translate. That seemed more authentic. I also felt the scene in Prefontaine where Steve made eye contact with the terrorist in a mask was utter BS. Clearly the US team would have been in lockdown mode and not able to hang out on balconies.

    But overall, the documentary style of Prefontaine worked for me just fine. If I had not read this article I would not have known the film was shot outside Eugene. I’ve visited Eugene and Hayward in 1986 & 2008 and I didn’t notice anything that looked inauthentic, and now realizing it was filmed in Tacoma, my opinion really hasn’t changed. I don’t find that relevant at all although I can understand why locals might feel differently.

    I liked both portrayals of Bowerman. Sutherland’s character clearly was more dominant in the 2nd film, but that is certainly due to his status as a marquee actor, especially in the late 90’s. I though Lee Ermey did a great job, and the Al Bundy character also did a fine job as Bill Dillinger.

    The girlfriend thing always had me wondering, but never enough to figure out who was who. I can understand why both films decided to include serious girlfriends in major roles, but WL loses big time with me for having Mary in the film all the way to the end and especially such a focal point at the last party. I scanned the Pre bio last night and the Nancy character was actually his girlfriend at the end. So given that this was based on a true story, Without Limits loses points for going in that direction. I understand Mary was a consultant to that film, but this was a seriously delusional way for the script to go.

    I liked the way the Prefontaine film handled the fight with the AAU, but not sure why they had to invent a fictitious body called the ATU. Small point, but if we are splitting hairs, I have to dock them for this choice. Perhaps some lawyers told them this would be safer.

    Given that these films were late 90’s, I’m glad that both steered clear of the DUI issue. I doubt they would have that luxury if the film was released today. People would be very judgmental about that (and it certainly creeps into my thinking about the role alcohol may have played) and I’m not sure how it would have been handled. Things have changed quite a bit.

    Similarly, they stayed far away from the Viren blood doping rumors. I doubt they would do that today. I still get annoyed watching those films knowing that the results were probably tainted because of the lack of clear rules and testing protocols. But Steve not getting a medal certainly added to the narrative and the tragedy of his story. We will never know what might have been.

    I guess I’m going to bail out on picking one or the other. I’m glad both films exist and as we get closer to the 40th anniversary of Pre’s death perhaps these will be re-released if they haven’t been so already. I probably should look b/c the bonus footage would likely be great.

  5. I saw both movies and there was no question the movie Prefonatine
    was the far better movie. Donald Sutherland vs R. Lee Ermey ?
    Ermey all the way. Sutherland is so pretentious compared to Ermey.
    And Crudup vs Leto ? Watching Crudup compared to Leto in the movies was like watching paint dry. Excruciating. The other that made Leto’s performance superior is that he captured the fear. Most
    people in life are driven by their fears. Some people run from them and others towards them. Pre’s pushed him to run like no one else.

  6. I grew up in Oregon, followed Steve’s running career at the U of O, was 19 when Steve died and attended his funeral at the Marshfield track in Coos Bay, OR. I liked both movies for different reasons. Each had strong and weak points. Coming from this Oregon background I have a natural bias in wanting to see Steve’s life and his story portrayed accurately. When the final scene of the movie Prefontaine shows the hearse circling the U of O track I was disappointed, since for the sake of accuracy the scene should have shown the Marshfield track. But, when I step outside of my limited connection to the story of Steve’s life this inaccuracy becomes really not all that important. Most of the movie going public with little connection to Oregon really don’t care about this inaccuracy. Also, it is understandable when movies change the story line to enhance the drama and widen the appeal of a movie.

  7. Prefontaine wins. This is because I am biased. I played a featured extra (The masked terrorist gunman Jared Ledo was looking at from his balcony). I cut down the flag of Israel in the scene. The dorms and balconies in that scene were filmed at the University of Washington. It was so much fun meeting R. Lee but learning how little glamour and long, boring idle time is really involved in filming..was quite the education! Oh, well, my name didn’t make the credits (The Masked Nobody), but I did get a personally autographed photo of R. Lee, and some shots of all of us at dinner together- R. Lee in his bathrobe, if you can picture that one, 🙂

    • Cool Don, I was also a featured extra on Prefontaine! 🙂 Not quite as ‘featured’ as you I guess, I was one of the newspaper photographers on the side of the track when we filmed at UPS. I was also a regular extra in the stands at UPS and UW. Don’t know if I talked to you or not. I was with the Kim Brooke agency. Cheers!

  8. Dear Russell,

    We at Movie Smackdown have read your letter, and it has shamed us. What have we been doing, working in Hollywood all these years as creators and producers of television series and feature films, when it is now, suddenly, crystal clear that we know little or nothing about what makes a good movie? We should not even be allowed to attend films in theaters, much less write about them! For this reason, we have decided to take your advice and fold our website. You will not be hearing from Movie Smackdown again.

    Thanks again for your life-changing comments! If you hear of any job opportunities in Duluth, please let us know. We would be particularly interested in something that involves teaching spelling, grammar or logic, which, judging from your letter, there’s a big need for in your neck of the woods.

    The (former) Editors
    Movie Smackdown

    • haha. You handled that nicely. God, that dude’s anger level was out of control. Personally, I liked your review, and agree. It really interests me though the differences in the films, particularly about the girlfriends. I mean, yeah, W/out Limits is probably a better movie, but doesn’t Prefontaine get points for being TRUE. I mean, the girlfriend in W/out Limits, it’s my understanding they broke up years before his death. He was, in reality dating the girlfriend shown in Prefontaine when he died. Weird, since the love story in Limits was such a MAJOR part of the story. haha. They have it where he’s right about to get back with her and all that, the whole star-crossed lovers thing. But that’s Hollywood, I guess. Both were really good, though. I agree Sutherland is pretty much just himself, as always, but that’s how it is w/ a lot of great actors. I mean, Jack’s always Jack, right? Walken is always Walken, etc. Two good movies, and though your pick for winner might have some truth issues, I do agree it ultimately is a better movie. And Monica Potter was so damn cute, even if her real life character wasn’t such a major part of his life. Oh, btw: the real Mary wrote a book, or is writing one, so she must’ve been somewhat important to him. She has a bunch of pics of him. It’s weird how each movie denies the other girl’s existence, haha. Anyway, I’m babbling. Take care. Nice review and nice handling of angry internet faceless wackos.

  9. Prefontaine was the greatest runner ever. This is a very good review and I agree that to get all the colors of his personality you would have to watch both films and even then you would fall short of a full portrait. But thanks for trying.

  10. PRAISE: Mr. Zabel, This piece is terrific asset to the internet’s athletic audience, but it manages to go beyond that…Far beyond. Amongst the global running community this comparison comes up often. It is wonderful to see that you have now offered it here and others can read, think, learn, and respond.

    HEY NOW YOU’RE AN ALL-STAR, GET YOUR GAME ON, GO PLAY: Many times people not-in-the-know enter a conversation and haven’t any clues to who Steve Prefontaine was. This actually happened on Facebook recently. It started when I commented on a photo of a guy with a floppy mop, Hollywood sunglasses, a mustache, wearing a tank top and “short” running shorts and I said, “Steve Prefontaine was looking good that day!” The response verified that Steve’s visual image, character traits, & track star status didn’t touch everyone’s lives. I mean I didn’t say “Wow look at Jordan… Tiger… Earnhardt… Gretzky… McEnroe…” You get the idea… Household names by today’s standards, I’d say, but this was Pre.

    I YAM WHAT I YAM: Even I, who started running as a grammar school kid in 1977 motivated by watching ABC Wide World of Sports, the NYC Marathon, reading Jim Fixx, and wearing pathetic blue & white polyester, two-toned cuffs and collar sweat suits, even that kid (me), only learned about Pre after high school. In 1984-86 I ran or raced nearly every Saturday and Sunday from September until December. Getting a bit burned out I turned to triathlon and a move to Hawaii two years later. It was there in Hawaii that I began to look into the lives of Pre, Shorter, Rodgers, Doc Sheehan and my personal favorite author, Jeff Galloway. I never shook any of their hands, yet I do owe a 3h 34m finish in the Los Angeles marathon (3/5/89) to them all, after training for only eight weeks. UNLIKE Pre I was never motivated to win, the finish line was my victory. If I managed to get a trophy or medal here or there, well it was humbly appreciated, but not expected.

    SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Back to Pre… Pre’s name became synonymous with hard work and, as Pre would have said, “guts”. His character wasn’t smooth like icing, but what he managed to do, especially on his home field, was awe inspiring. Keep in mind that Pre had won 78% of his races… & He never lost at home. In today’s world of insanely obsessive fantasy sports fanatics, video games where you can assemble “all-time” teams and find more statistics in a weekly sports review than you could possibly know what to do with, Pre would have been a shoe-in for “99% owned”.

    THE ZEN OF ATHLETIC MASOCHISM: People so often asked why I ran – I was in 6th grade when I started – and I had a multitude of answers from the philosophical “I run because I can”, to sarcastic, “It is the only thing that I have found to keep my picture off the wall at the U.S. Post Office”. There was always that good feeling the day after a hard run, from both reflection of the run and the recovery going on within. I am sure that Steve said a lot of things that have been lost over the years, but helping define why he raced was this gem that he left us with, “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

    CELLULOID HEROES: As far as the movies go, Pre fans would agree that the desire to cut and splice the films is high. My only wish, not mentioned in the film would be to have some sort of OTHER male supporting role that Donald Sutherland could have lent his expertise to. The guy, Sutherland, is all business in the passionate approach to his chosen career, but I have to give the nod to Gunny. I feel that he hits it based on a Lombardy-ish tact and fervor that feels lost in today’s world.

    COMICAL CLOSING NOTE: Although it would have been interesting to see what sideline spectacle Woody Hayes could have done with the roll of Bowerman.

    (The words set before you now would have otherwise been lost, Mr. Zabel. Thanks and Bravo! Perhaps one day I can shake your hand)

    Respectfully I Remain,
    CJ Smith
    Port Richey, FL

    • I agree with much from the above reviews for these two fine films. Just a few years ago I had no idea who Steve Prefontaine was. I had just started jogging to get in shape and was really enjoying it. I went to the local Blockbusters to get a movie and on my way to the checkout counter I spied the Prefontaine dvd box on the shelf and was immediately drawn to it. Read the back cover bit about Pre being the James Dean of track and thought, “Ok, I’ll get this and hope it will inspire me a bit in my efforts, but it will probably suck!”
      Was I ever wrong! I fell in love with the movie, with Pre and with running. The next time I went jogging I found myself going much faster. I got in great shape in no time.
      Later, I watched Without Limits as well and ran a bit faster. I suggest you watch both movies. If you want the real story of Pre, though, see the documentary, Fire On The Track. It’s awesome too. GO PRE!

      • Grant… out of curiosity, which film to do you think is superior and why?

        • Hi Bryce,
          Sorry I’ve taken so long to get back here and answer your question! In fact, I’d even forgotten posting the above. Here I just sat rereading this all again and vaguely remember seeing it before, then I came to my name, Grant, and it all came back to me. lol

          I prefer PREFONTAINE. Probably due largely in part to the fact that it was the first one I saw. I also like the fact that it is inclusionary of Pre’s father and the pseudodocumentary style utilized with Pre’s contemporarie’s recollections I think really help define his character and the impact he had on the people who knew him. I like it more for several other reasons, some of them subjective, some of them personal, all of them maybe sort of vague, but I think Leto’s character of Pre was more likable, real, and believable. That being said, WITHOUT LIMITS, is a great film as well and Crudup as the fiery and angry Pre is fun to watch also. Both movies are good, and it is a close race all the way to the finish line but, for me, I think the race, entertainment wise, is easily won by PREFONTAINE. And I do apologize for all those commas. Thanks for the SMACKDOWN. One of the best I’ve read. And I just voted for PREFONTAINE. I guess I’ve voted twice now GO PRE!

      • As a runner that came from a high school near to Marshfield, and one that was part of Eugene’s running community at the same time, I think that I have to go with “Prefontaine” as the more accurate of the two. However, both are inspirational as you indicate but I found that both seem to leave out the Eugene experience that he created. We all felt like we were a part of Pre, and running with him, and he felt that, too. I had the good fortune to run in some of the races he was in. I was never competitive with him but I remember that he was always encouraging, and in fact, merciful. In one race at Hayward, I was in the humiliating position of possibly being lapped by Pre. I gave it everything, and I could hear him behind me but he never passed. The next day, there was a photo in the Eugene Register-Guard that showed him finishing, and my foot was just in front of him. I know he held up.

        • Great story, Alan. I hope you’ve got that picture on your wall!

    • CJ… I’ve just re-read your thoughtful comment. Wow. Very impressive. Thanks for adding to the overall expertise of this post. Someone who writes and thinks like you do is always welcome here at Movie Smackdown. I hope you’ll come back and comment on more of our Smacks!

  11. I was the set medic for “Without Limits”, so saw the production up-close, of course. My opinion may be a bit skewed because of that. But, I also knew Pre (he had many Sunday dinners at my family’s house), and I knew Bowerman (my mother was the ghostwriter for his famous jogging book), and I lived on Birch Lane, just downhill from where he died.
    What the “Without Limits” production did, that the “Pre” production could not, was to shoot at the very places where everything was taking place. Perhaps this is important only to people such as myself, who were living the story over the years, but it makes quite the impact to know that we are actually on the UofO track, actually at Bowerman’s house, actually on the road where Pre died. Munich was, of course, simulated, but the rest was not Hollywood – it was where the story took place.

    • why is prefontaine referred to as “little roob” in the movie without limits? What does it mean?

      • Lisa, a “rube” is a country bumpkin (Pre was from a small town: Coos Bay, Oregon). I think Coach Bowerman was just trying to put him in his place (because he thought he knew better than the coach) and was trying too establish the hierarchy of the relationship.

  12. Without Limits all the way. Leto was awful, I didn’t believe his performance for a second. Sure, Without Limits didn’t get all the facts down (as I now see after reading Pre’s biography), but I do believe it best represented the heart Pre carried with him throughout his life and running career. He was the rock star of the track field and this was portrayed perfectly under Crudup/Towne’s hands. Prefontaine seemed like a hallow imitation of Pre’s life. Without Limits captured his spirit.

  13. Basically, they are unaware of prefontaines background and why he got so obsessed with the compulsion of front running, that those flash backs resemble him running away from bullies, and when you’re running away from bullies you will eventually experience pain in your legs, your lungs, because you’re burning out, and hence, “little secret I learned in coosbay, in the woods” Where the bullies chase him, he learned to withdrawl more pain then anyone, and when bowerman states, “He always hated a crowed, tried to get away, like he was trying to get away from something, That line connects to flashbacks and to the scene where he says that line “I can withdrawl more pain then anyone you’ve ever met”

  14. October 2010..AND YET HE LIVES ON………I am a 59 year old grandmother, who at the time of these events was a very young wife and mother, and I did not have the interest in sports, and the olympics that I acquired later in life. Today my husband, who incidently was a track and field runner in high school, watched Without Limits, and was captivated by the story, however, I did not know Mr Steve, nor was I aware of his death as I watched the story, hoping after he had turned down the pros, he would go on to the olympics, and then when I saw that car he was driving and that road, I knew what was coming up, and I hated that!!!! I cried like a baby. So sad…BUT what a life he had…I think that movie inspires anyone no matter what your age!!!

  15. What a thoughtful analysis of your own! Thank your for sharing. I hope you’ll become a regular reader/commenter at Smackdown. That kind of comment really deepens our coverage. Bryce

  16. This is an absolutely awesome comparison! I am soooooo glad that you did this and ESPECIALLY that you shared the fact that you were in the vicinity of the actual experience of Steve in motion. THAT ALONE PUTS YOU AT THE “UBER-GOD” LEVEL OF COOL!!! I however must profess that I am your exact opposite with respect to Steve Prefontaine! I was very young and oblivious to anything outside of my tiny rural reality in the late 70’s. When I rented Prefontaine in 1998 I did not know it was a true story or rather “Based on Actual Events” as they like to say. I had absolutely NO IDEA how the story was going to end as it unfolded and I was flabbergasted to say the least!!! At that point I was an “aspiring filmmaker” who simply loved to study story. The “flash forward to the aged contemporaries documentary feel” seemed slightly campy because Al Bundy was one of them… But when I realized “OMG!!! This is somebody who really lived…” and immediately watched it again… Steve Prefontaine became part of what fascinates me about life from that day forward. I accosted my elderly, but once very “worldly” Aunt Doris (now departed) I showed her the movie Prefontaine and asked her to tell me what she could remember about Pre. She talked about him as if she was describing a long lost treasure full of priceless, sparkling bobbles that forced you to GASP just by looking at them! (wrap your brain around THAT level of honor for Steve!) Because I love film-making and I love truth… and I absolutely WORSHIP story… I had to also watch Without Limits. If I were casting a movie and both Billy Crudup & Jared Leto auditioned… I’d fall all over Mr. Crudup HANDS DOWN! But Leto’s Pre is a warm, life-loving character that has actual hints of “Godliness” – I was riveted to his Character Portrayal before I knew the story was about someone who lived. I honestly would go out on a limb and say “I believe her researched the character role VERY DEEPLY.” His ability to shift between boyish charm and cocky sport master appear soooooooo GENUINE had it not been based on a true story I would say it was a “far fetched” character, but when I study pictures of Steve – I can see it in him (back and forth, regardless of Steve’s age, even though it definitely “matured” with Steve) and because of that I would cast J.L. again as Pre. Without Limits had a very contrived feel to it. I’d call Prefontaine “warm” and Without Limits “cold” versions of the same story. Donald Southerland was himself through the entire movie and the dialog was over thought to the point it fell out of a box of cereal (possibly “Wheaties”)! I like pieces of it and I believe it had historical significance but if I’d seen it first I would not have fallen in love with Steve Prefontaine… And I’m so glad that I did!!!

  17. G’day Bryce Zabel, Absolutely brilliant article. Best I’ve read on the net in years after watching a film/s and wanting to follow up. And, I don’t say that because I went in agreeing with what you say (although I do;) but because it is so well written, logical and points justified. Write something now please about Chariots of Fire and how Eric Liddel had 6 months to prepare for the 400m (not 10 days as in the film) after discovering the 100m Heats were on a Sunday and all the other changes. I hate the way the facts are changed for ratings. What these people did was great in the first place, and need not be exaggerated or altered.

  18. Interestingly, Crudup and Leto both have the same hip number in this article’s pic. That sort of implies that the films went to the effort of digging that info up.
    For my money, Without Limits is the better “movie”. Whether it does a better job of capturing the events is a different question. My suggestion, watch Without Limits, get hooked on the story, then you’ll want to watch Pre as well.
    I made my mother watch WL one night and she loved it up to the end. Then she was mad at me for not warning her about Pre’s demise.

  19. Prefontaine did a horrible job of filming running scenes – none seemed intense or real. If you can’t get that right in a running movie, nothing else matters.

    • I agree with Jan!

  20. Having lived in that same dorm myself (ah, the fine tradition of Douglass-Walton) got me interested in running here at UO. This showdown makes me want to watch not one, but both movies! Great review, very nice, thank you.

  21. I own and watch both movies often. I have also read Pre’s biography (great read!!!), and have the Nike documentary “Fire on the Track” (AWESOME!!!!)
    I like both movies, but Pre is the better film in my opinion

  22. I think that Prefontaine seemed a little more true, just because it was set up like a documentary and didn’t seem like it had as much Hollywood put into it. Pre rocks though. I have been a distance runner for 8 years now and can only hope to accomplish some of his goals. So either way both movies are inspirational.

  23. I first watched Without Limits a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it…the scenery was so amazing I actually moved to Oregon. Also Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland are in top form..and the movie had that feeling (instant classic I thought). Anyways a few weeks ago I starting buying every DVD I always wanted but didn’t own….so I bought Prefontaine on ebay last week, thinking I was buying Without Limits.
    I knew there were 2 movies released closely, but my memory was a little cloudy. But I stuck in the DVD and gave it a try. WoW…NOT EVEN CLOSE. Prefontaine is no where the movie Without Limits was and is. The tone, acting, setting – wrong campus, Without Limits actually filmed in Eugune not some other school in Tacoma like Prefontaine, and the background especially Crudup running up to Bowerman’s cabin was breathtaking…that view was worth the price of the DVD by itself. And Monica Potter is so cute…and a much better actress….Amy Locane is some chick from Melrose Place. Trust me, there is only movie worth your time…and only 1 classic that belongs in the DVD collection and that is WITHOUT LIMITS. No Contest!

  24. Both movies are great. Own them both and watch them often. I actually just finished watching Prefontaine in preperation for the Columbus Marathon in 2 days. The story is so inspirational to any runner. You know how it ends, but the pure guts that one man carried makes you feel like you can do anything. Running is a mental thing and Pre proved that. I much prefer Prefontaine over Without Limits. I think Crudup’s acting seems fake (however I didnt know Pre so its hard to tell) while Leto captured the cockyness and confidence that attracts all runner to Pre. R. Lee Emry plays a coach any athlete would love to have and from what I have read, Bowerman was that kind of man. Great article but Prefontaine was the much better film. GO PRE!

  25. As a high-school cross country runner from Oregon, Pre was, and is to this day, one of my heroes. My mother retains the scrapbook of newspaper clippings she and I assembled over the years of his exploits. Yes, I liked both films, but Crudup nailed it, so I prefer that version. Amy Locane knocked me out in Pre’s story, and in “CryBaby”, and I really wish there were more we coluld see her in. Thanks, Bryce, for illuminating once again the finest runner I’ve ever seen.

  26. I worked on Prefontaine. Our film came out first, but both were shot at the same time. There’s an interesting backstory to it: the Without Limits production did everything they could think of to sabotage ours because they knew we would beat them in the “race” to theatrical release. (They had a budget 4 times ours and a much longer shoot and finish schedule.) One example: The main reason we located production in Washington was because Without Limits bought out Hayward Field for that entire summer to keep us away, even though they only shot there for a couple of weeks. But once our film came out and tanked at the box office, they withheld their film for 18 months in hopes that it wouldn’t negatively affect their film. I believe they did about the same amount at the B.O. anyway. Nobody really cared about this story.

  27. I think it’s odd that Billy Crudup wins this smackdown. I thought he gave a far more effeminate, difficult performance. I don’t know what Prefontaine was really like, but I really enjoyed Jared Leto’s performance in “Prefontaine” and felt that he was the better choice for the role.
    “Without Limits” did a much, much better job of capturing the feeling of what it’s like to be in a big race, though, and for a runner like myself, that’s what tips the scales in its favor.

  28. If I remember from the book “Pre” the final meet at Oregon track was the restorative meet to save the track. In “Prefontaine” they call it an Oregon/Finn meet and I think that is not the way it was. I can’t find the book right now so I might be wrong but I think “Without Limits” is the better movie.

  29. I’ve read Pre’s biography by Tom Jordan, I’ve read Bill Bowerman’s biography “Men of Oregon” by Kenny Moore and I have seen both movies. Pre is a real hero for me. I felt Without Limits was a warmer movie, overall more appealing than Prefontaine.
    There is an interesting chapter in Bill Bowerman’s biography about the split between the two movies. Bill stood over Without Limits and consulted with Robert Towne on its content. Likewise, Kenny Moore who was a running colleague of Steve helped with the script. So it would have to be Without Limits for me…

    • Agreed, Justin. And I like the way you put it — Without Limits is a “warmer” movie.

  30. I just watched Without Limits today and am still confused about something. What were they talking about when they kept referencing (and showing flashbacks) to something that happened to him in the woods and enduring the pain?

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