Steve James and Peter Gilbert should be just the guys to tell the story of Steve Prefontaine, the great, world-class athlete who was killed in an auto accident in 1975 at the age of 24. The thoughtful filmmakers who turned the basketball aspirations of two unknown inner-city kids into the thrilling documentary Hoop Dreams are exactly the kind of storytellers who could convey the brilliance of the charismatic ”Pre” — even to moviegoers who may not be familiar with the story of the Oregon-born distance runner. (FYI: He broke every American distance record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, and his activism on behalf of amateur athletes changed the rules of their games.) After all, it is to the uninitiated as well as to the knowledgeable that Prefontaine must appeal.
But by the time this devoted, mock-documentary biopic finishes rolling out the narrative (with a portion devoted to reenacting the horrifying terrorism that tore up the 1972 Munich Olympics), all the while being sensitive to the involvement of the late athlete’s family, doing right by Nike (whose shoes Pre was one of the first to wear), and beating the competition from Warner Bros., which rolls out its own take on the subject this fall — well, Disney’s Prefontaine ends up with the safe, well-controlled, ”nice” look of a TV movie.
Jared Leto, that soulful eyeful from television’s My So-Called Life, plays Pre with earnestness (he looks strikingly like the real guy seen in news footage). R. Lee Ermey (Dead Man Walking) is affecting as coach Bill Bowerman (who went on to become one of the founders of Nike); and as a fellow coach, Ed O’Neill gets a nice stretch away from the golden handcuffs of TV’s Married…With Children. But in this standard athlete-dies-young presentation, we never do catch the magic that made Steve Prefontaine a towering figure. Instead, this Pre is a shaggy-haired, sentimental favorite — a teen angel rather than an Olympian.