Like a lot of american heroes, Steve Prefontaine, the fabled Olympic track star of the ’70s, preferred to do things alone. Early in Without Limits, there’s a funny and exhilarating scene in which Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) races in a high school marathon, and a college scout, who is there to observe him, wonders how he’s going to pick Steve out from the dozens of other runners. Moments later, Prefontaine appears–a hundred yards ahead of everyone else. The point seems simple enough: This guy runs alone because he’s fast. In Without Limits, though, speed itself is a heady and complex, almost spiritual dynamic.
Physically, Prefontaine is a marvel, but he also refuses to pace himself, even if that decision adds precious seconds onto his time. He’s a fanatic, a man who believes he has to push himself at every moment, scraping up against the limits of nature. That sounds rather ascetic–a tortured monk’s version of long-distance racing–but Prefontaine is no simple masochist. He doesn’t enjoy the pain of running, exactly. He feeds on it, as if it were the life force itself.
As played by Billy Crudup, in a performance of crackling star potency, Prefontaine is an outrageously driven and char-ismatic jock deity. One look at his smile and you can tell that he’s in love with his effect on others, be it the endless groupies he encounters at the University of Oregon, the stadium crowds that greet him with jubilant cries of “Pre,” or, a year or so later, the TV commentators at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. But Prefontaine’s boyish narcissism also leads him to seek ecstatic, even self- destructive communion with his own body. At one point, he runs with a wounded foot, and as he approaches the camera in slow motion, we watch, with gathering dread, as the blood drenches his shoe. With his shaggy corn-silk hair and funky mustache, Prefontaine burns through races like a muscular version of the young-buck Robert Redford. He’s a new kind of hero: a track-and-field rock star, all sinew and will, wrapped in the softened-macho image of the post-counterculture.
Incisive and enthralling, as deft on its feet as the athletes it’s about, Without Limits is actually the second Prefontaine biopic (after 1997’s earnest, prosaic Prefontaine), but it’s the first to do justice to his story–and, indeed, to a distant era of athletic idealism in American life. Cowritten and directed by Robert Towne, the legendary ’70s screenwriter (Chinatown) who turned direc- tor with the lovely, overlooked Olympic-training drama Personal Best (1982), Without Limits is a richly intimate sports fable that shares some of that film’s soulful grasp of do-or-die athletic urgency.
At college, Prefontaine chases a sweet Catholic girl (Julia Roberts look-alike Monica Potter) who turns out to be as strong-minded as he is, and he comes under the wing of the track coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), who realizes that his new runner is a competitive genius but also a prima donna fueled by insane degrees of pride. Sutherland, updating the eternal myth of the tough-love coach/drill sergeant/Mr. Miyagi figure, gives a performance of triumphant, winking intelligence. The joke, and power, of the character is that he’s a benign SOB who uses his niceness to play with your head. Patiently, meticulously, Bowerman breaks Pre as if he were a beautiful horse; he attempts to teach him the value of pace over superhuman exertion–a lesson Pre grasps but never truly accepts. Bowerman, who employs his wife’s waffle iron to invent an extra-light, rubber-cleated running shoe, is captivated by the mathematics of speed, and the film uses his scientific curiosity to provide a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of long- distance running. The races themselves are sequences of rare physical and intellectual beauty, observed from both the crowds’ and runners’ points of view.
Who, in the end, was Pre? Towne and Crudup give us a young man obsessed with winning yet even more obsessed with testing himself. It’s easy to see why Tom Cruise served as this movie’s producer: Like Cruise’s best films, Without Limits is about the price–and grace–of American victory. Unfortunately, there’s one dramatic stumbling block that Towne can’t overcome. Pre’s death in 1975, the result of a car crash that occurred when he was driving back to a party (some believe he was drunk), is surely a tragedy, but a naggingly arbitrary one. We’re watching the story of a man on the verge of transcendence, and then, suddenly, it’s as if a piano had been dropped on his head. Steve Prefontaine’s death, I’m afraid, breaks all the rules of screenwriting, but his life, in Without Limits, is more pungent than ever.