The Flaws In "Prefontaine" Are Too Big To Ignore

The Flaws In "Prefontaine" Are Too Big To Ignore

There were two Steve Prefontaine biopics made in the late 1990s. The first of those, "Prefontaine," is a strange one.

Apr 3, 2020 by Lincoln Shryack
The Flaws In "Prefontaine" Are Too Big To Ignore
All this time at home has allowed me to fully lean into my inner track nerdiness and catch up on films that I couldn't get to in a busier time. Track movies are certainly a rarity in Hollywood as niche sports don’t typically do well at the box office, but this quarantine period and the relatively small number of movies about running means I could very well be fully caught up on the sport’s cinematic library by the time life returns to normal. My plan, for as long as I’m stuck at home, is to watch a track film each week that I’ve never seen previously and then review it for this site.

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All this time at home has allowed me to fully lean into my inner track nerdiness and catch up on films that I couldn't get to in a busier time. Track movies are certainly a rarity in Hollywood as niche sports don’t typically do well at the box office, but this quarantine period and the relatively small number of movies about running means I could very well be fully caught up on the sport’s cinematic library by the time life returns to normal. My plan, for as long as I’m stuck at home, is to watch a track film each week that I’ve never seen previously and then review it for this site.

To kick off my first film review, I watched Prefontaine, the first of two Steve Prefontaine biopics released in the late 90s. I had already seen Without Limits, the second film about the fiery U.S. distance runner, on several occasions, and for that reason I had never thought it essential to sit down for the 106 minutes of Prefontaine. The 1997 release starring Jared Leto as the title character is almost universally viewed as the lesser of the two films, and at this point in my life I wasn’t lacking on Pre content, ya know? I’ve heard all the quotes, watched the Munich Olympic 5,000m race a half dozen times and, of course, have seen Without Limits. Pre never settled for second place, so why should I?

But like many of you right now, I have a lot of time on my hands. So I paid the $3.99 on Thursday to rent Prefontaine on Amazon and proceeded to endure one of the strangest movie-viewing experiences of my 29-plus years. It didn’t help that my four-year-old son kept asking who was winning the race and then laughed every time I responded “Steve," but fear not, I was attentive enough to understand that this movie was not a gift worthy of sacrifice.

Before I tell you everything wrong about this biopic, I want to make it clear that, although I had heard that this film was not the best, I did not initially intend to roast it here. But by the 30th time R. Lee Ermey’s Bill Bowerman called Leto’s Pre a “rube," I couldn’t contain my frustration. Here’s everything that bothered me about Prefontaine:

1. The Hayward Field scenes aren’t at Hayward Field.


2. The film is stylized as a faux-documentary but can’t seem to commit to the format.


3. Ermey’s Bowerman is characterized as a lunatic rather than a quirky coach (See: putting dynamite on his mailbox without proper context or character introduction.) Ermey was a former Marine in real life and he seems like he’s trying to play one here.


4. Here are a few of Bowerman’s unintentionally hilarious quotes in the film:

  • “Think how nervous Young is trying to slay you, a fire-breathing dragon in your own backyard. You are going to burn his ass up.”

  • “Look at that magnificent little son of a bitch. He knows he can’t out-kick Viren, so he’s going to sprint 600 yards.”

  • “I guess I’ve sniffed too much shoe glue over the years.”

5. As I mentioned above, Bowerman constantly calls Pre a “rube.” I was screaming for Donald Sutherland in Without Limits about halfway through Ermey’s performance.


6. The romantic plot was confusing.

Pre’s primary love interest in the film is Nancy Alleman, his girlfriend and a runner on the Oregon women’s team. But the movie also spends a lot of time on a past girlfriend, Elaine, who Pre kind of still loves I guess? “I like your hair that way, it makes you look older,” Pre tells Elaine when they meet up for a beer post-Olympics. Dude.

Add in the fact that Pre’s girlfriend in Without Limits is Mary Marckx, who’s not in Prefontaine, and I cannot keep up with all this.


7. Leto’s acting chops are obscured by poor writing. I know Pre was determined and competitive, but this film makes him out to be a moody jerk.


8. I learned that Mac Wilkins beat Penti Kahma in the discus at Pre’s Finn-Oregon dual meet. Not sure I needed this information. 


9. Pre refuses to let a nine-year-old beat him in a fake race. Again, perhaps an unnecessary show of competitiveness. Did this happen? No idea, but it’s petty nonetheless.



10. The actor who plays one of Pre’s Oregon teammates runs like this… and he beats Pre in a race!



11. There’s not enough context around why Bill Bowerman is making shoes out of a waffle iron.


12. Curtis Cunningham, an AAU (or ATU in the movie) suit, is played by Red Forman from That 70s Show (Kurtwood Smith) but he doesn’t get nearly enough air time.


13. Ed O’Neill’s uninspiring performance as Bill Dellinger. 

His big scene comes in Munich after the terrorist attack against the Israeli Olympic team, where he encourages an understandably distraught Pre to turn his focus back to the race ahead. His words of wisdom? “You think Viren, Yifter and Bedford are talking like this? You think they’re wringing their hands and packing their bags over this thing? They came here to win a goddamn race!” 

The guy just witnessed a terrorist attack from his balcony, chill coach!


14. Before his last race, which took place in 1975, Pre rips the Nike swoosh off his spikes, calling it “needless wind resistance.” Since Pre signed with Nike in 1973, I seriously doubt he really did this.


15. Why is everyone running in the outside lanes?



Listen, I’m of the opinion that all press is good press when it comes to track and field, but given that you have two options for Steve Prefontaine movies from the 90s, please choose Without Limits over Prefontaine.