AT&F Deep Archives: (September 1998) Review of Without Limits, New Prefontaine Movie

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The movie, Without Limits, came out on my son's birthday, in Madison, Wisconsin, and was in the theatre for a couple days. It was the second Pre movie to come out in six months, and it was the best. My son, 12, was most annoyed about having to see a track movie on his birthday. I think I made it up to him by getting him a new Apple computer.

Pre meant alot to me. I raced in the Nike Pre Montreals, because Pre had them. I ran my first 10,000m in them (no socks) and my first hour champs, (no socks, lots of blood). He was rock star, athlete and political activist all in one. He was, well, unique.

The movie was quite good.

You can buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Without-Limits-Billy-Crudup/dp/0790739291

The movie company actually advertised with the running network, spending $100k over 3 months in print and on the web. Ah, the good old days.

This is the trailer:

September 1998

Review of Without Limits, New Prefontaine Movie

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by Larry Eder / American Track & Field

In high school, as a freshman, I remember reading the Illiad & the Odyssey. This tale of Odysseus and his voyages and his battles has enthralled schoolboys for centuries. In the Illiad, I was taken by the character of Achilles, his strength and his heroics surely, but early on, the reader would note that his wiggling foot not being protected by the waters of the river Styxx would prove fatal.

Robert Towne, the director and co-writer of Without Limits, uses the concepts of Greek theatre in all of his dramas--Chinatown, The Last Detail, Personal Best and Mosquito Coast to name but a few. But in Without Limits, he has truly found his Achilles character--Steve Prefontaine.

I was seventeen when my best friend Bob Lucas called me to tell me that our hero, Steve Prefontaine, had died in car crash. I remember a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Pre had been our hero. We had watched him run the 5,000 at the Munich Olympics. Most Americans knew of Frank Shorter, Jim Ryun and Steve Prefontaine - he was a sports celebrity. And he was gone.

Towne and his co writer, Kenny Moore, knew that the story was not just about a guy running fast, as anyone could have done that, but a story about Prefontaine doing what he had to do--run an race that was uncomprimised. Towne and Moore also knew that they had to capture the problematic relationship between Bill Bowerman, arguably one of the greatest coaches that America has ever produced and Prefontaine.

Kenny Moore, who first broached the subject of this movie with Towne in1980 when they were developing the movie, Personal Best, knew Prefontaine and Bowerman intimately. Seeing Without Limits was a visual complement to Moore's collection of short stories titled "Best Efforts" (1982) where he gives you a picture of Bowerman, Prefontaine, Viren and many other running greats. Moore's writing style always gave me the feeling of intimacy, Moore always had this great insight into his chosen target for the story--he would not sum someone up in two sentences, as his personality would never consider that any human could be summed up in several sentences, but you would get a better insight into the runner and the human being. Moore did not just give us runners, but complicated human beings, that to a one, I would have liked to set down with a beer and chat for an evening.

Without Limits is Moore and Towne's attempt to put Steve Prefontaine and all he touched on the screen and they did it admirably. In terms of technical know how, Towne and Moore did a great job, right down to the correct training shoes and racing shoes. Billy Crudup does look like Prefontaine, and he sure runs like him. Crudup trained for four months, lowering his 200 meters to 26 seconds and quarters to 59 seconds, with the help of Pan Am champ Patrice Donnelley (Towne's star in Personal Best). Towne used athletes where he could in the movie, and they did a great job. My favorite was Adam Setliff,the discus thrower, who did an admirable job playing Mac Wilkins, the only person who dared call Pre his other nickname to his face--world--short for world famous.

The three main actors were well matched. Billy Crudup was excellent as Prefontaine, he had the look, the running style, but most of all the swashbuckling charm that most of his contempories describe--you could have sworn it was our hero--and that he had not died so young.

Donald Sutherland was perfectly cast as Bill Bowerman. My favorite scene with Bowerman was where he burns his sauna heated keys into Prefontaines' leg--a scene perfectly described in a short story by Moore called "Bowerman" . Sutherland is an actor who revels in complex characters. Bowerman is a man of an earlier age--charming, classically educated and profane, all at once--the type of man who demands a young man's attention, and gets it, whether the student wants it or not. Bowerman was an educator first, and a coach second--he knew that, and so did his athletes.

Prefontaine and Bowerman did not make fast friends, but there was respect. If Pre would have lived, one could only dream of what could have been accomplished. And his running would have been a small part of those accomplishments.

He had started a running program in the Oregon prison system, he spoke to kids at school about doing well in school and sport and he was working for this tiny little shoe company in Beaverton, Oregon with Bowerman and this quiet, former Oregon miler named Phil Knight.

Like Greek mythology, stories told around the dinner fire for thousands of years, Without Limits has its complexity and that is the love story between Steve Prefontaine and Mary Marx, played convincingly by Monica Potter. Pre does not win her right away, but she does win Pre--and that honesty that both give to the relationship--he giving shoes to whoever women he slept with, and Mary not wanting the shoes--was part of the plot which gave Without Limits its universality.

Without Limits, is a story of a man who lived his life honestly, who ran from the front not only because he knew he could, but because, he believed,withstand more pain that anyone else. It is also a story of a teacher and his young, challenging student. Bowerman and Prefontaine never truly understood each other, but they surely respected each other. And there is more.

The more? Great race scenes--my favorite is the Olympic Trials with my other hero, George Young ( 68 steeple bronze medalist--four time Olympian--now Athletic director at a junior college in Northern Arizona). The last race, done for dramatic effect, was well done,and so was the party. The death scene was dramatic and sad at the same time.

The final scenes of the movie show the eulogy for Prefontaine, and then a shot goes to the stands and you see his girlfriend, Mary Marx. For her, you are drawn to thinking that the world records did not matter, nor did the possible medals, but the inability to grow old with your soulmate must be hell.

And it is with that sadness, that Towne leaves us. He has not only created a tremendous movie about an American Achilles, or James Dean, if you prefer, he has created the story of a man with promise, whose life was cut short. And that,

I hope is what the audience will be left with.

Towne & Moore had a tremendous challenge--could they keep the track geeks happy and also draw more than a crowd of 50--all members of the track and field user group on the web--to see a "running movie".? I think that they have accomplished all of that--an exacting capturing of a complex individual and the times he lived in, the people who loved him and the people who he loved.

In the 1980 Olympic Trials program, Nike ran a full page picture of Steve Prefontaine, with the eulogy by Kenny Moore. I have kept it in my top desk drawer for eighteen years as inspiration. Moore's words ended, "there are two minutes left, he could have run a half mile..."

I recommend this movie whole heartedly, although noting that I am prejudiced on both the subject (Prefontaine), the writer (Moore) and the director (Towne). Without Limits is a movie about a true American hero. Unlike celebrities of today,

Prefontaine was himself, for all the world to see--and he was loved, worshipped, feared and respected, because of his honesty. Without Limits captures the Prefontaine that we know about, and wished that we had known.

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