You don't have to give a damn about sports to find Without Limits engrossing. Like all the best films, it is really about character. In this case the character is that of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary track star of the 1970s who held every American running record between 2000 and 10,000 meters; he died in a car accident in 1975 at the age of 24.
With the sexy good looks and cocky self-confidence of a rock star, Prefontaine (called Pre by friends, fans, and competitors alike) harbored a fierce will -- not just to win, but to be the best runner he could be. He pushed himself beyond all limits, enduring physical pain few others would even want to consider. His relationship with Bill Bowerman, his coach at the University of Oregon, was perhaps the most pivotal in his life. The two clashed about Pre's insistence on running at the front of the pack throughout a race, as well as about his belief that winning wasn't enough. Their emotional bond extended far beyond the track.
Written and directed by Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Chinatown (he also directed Tequila Sunrise and the underrated Personal Best), Without Limits benefits enormously from nuanced performances by Billy Crudup as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as Bowerman. Crudup, a rising star of both stage and screen (Arcadia on Broadway; Sleepers, Inventing the Abbotts onscreen), doesn't attempt to unravel the enigmatic athlete; he tries to capture his complex, uncompromising nature. Pre's less attractive qualities are on full display -- the egoism, arrogance, and casual thoughtlessness that often afflict the popular and successful -- but so are his openness, genuine innocence, and extraordinary commitment.
As the subdued but passionate Bowerman, Sutherland gives his best performance in ages. He has fallen into bad habits over the years, sleepwalking through roles and imbuing almost every part with similar mannerisms. His Bowerman, however, is a distinct and fully realized individual, a tough but caring man who became both friend and mentor to his talented charge. (Bowerman went on to design and develop the first Nike running shoe.)
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The film also concerns Prefontaine's relationship with his girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter of Con Air). Pre had his choice of girls, and he rarely seemed to say no. He clearly had a special affection for Mary, a smart, strong-willed young woman who loved him but refused to fawn over him, and who knew she would always take a back seat to his running. The part is not particularly well developed, and yet Potter does a respectable job with it. Also worth noting is Jeremy Sisto as Pre's friend and fellow runner Frank Shorter.
Working with legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Searching for Bobby Fischer), Towne captures the intensity and excitement of a sporting event as well as the studied calm and concentration of the athletes. He has always had a feel for characters with an overarching will to succeed, and Without Limits is no exception. The film touches on Pre's involvement in the effort to support the rights of amateur athletes, but it doesn't provide enough information for those unfamiliar with the controversy. And while fashions and a few anti-Vietnam War protests suggest the time period, hardly any attention is paid to the political and historical changes sweeping the nation. Towne might have been merely reflecting the reality of his principals; maybe Pre and his fellow athletes were so obsessed that they barely noticed what was happening in the rest of the world, including events that affected them directly during the 1972 Olympics: Palestinian terrorists took hostage and eventually murdered eleven Israeli athletes.
A free spirit both on and off the track, Prefontaine believed that talent was a myth and that sheer will power determined success. "I can endure more pain than anyone you've ever met, so I can beat anyone you've ever met," he tells Mary. It's an unexpected attitude, one that Towne suggests derived from Pre's childhood, when he had to outrun school bullies intent on beating him up. Whether or not the story is true, it is the film's only attempt to offer any psychological insight into a man whose single-minded determination and extraordinary physical ability made him one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced.
Directed by Robert Towne. Written by Robert Towne and Kenny Moore. Starring Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, and Monica Potter.