Without Limits, Robert Towne’s film about long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, is beautifully made and features a marvelous performance by Donald Sutherland as the track coach Bill Bowerman, but the movie is no more than moderately interesting. I greatly enjoy Towne’s obsessions when they turn to crime (Chinatown), sex (Shampoo), or the morale of lifetime Navy men (The Last Detail), but Towne’s two running movies, Personal Best and Without Limits, both of which he directed as well as wrote (former Olympic runner Kenny Moore collaborated on Without Limits), are forced to return again and again to the spectacle of people running around a track. My own interest in sports tends to be pragmatic: I like statistics and physical data, and the drama of winning and losing, but not a spiritual lesson, and in the end Without Limits embalms long-distance running in the higher religiosity of intellectual sports movies – solemn mystico-athletic abstractions about “will” and “desire” and “heart” and “limits.” The movie is somehow very profound yet, at the same time, slightly boring. One has to add, however, that Without Limits inspires relief, for it displays certain enlarging notions of the self and of the complexity of human motives that have been abandoned in our bizarre current preoccupations.
Consider: We live in a society in which public discourse is dominated by journalists and lawyers. When the journalists are lied to, as they were by the president, their sense of self-importance becomes aroused, even inflamed, and they turn relentless and prosecutorial. The lawyers, most of them, possess little moral or ethical imagination. Whenever serious human understanding is required, they fall back on legalisms that often distort or narrow down the human or constitutional issues involved. This dreary act of reducing conduct to a formula is called being a good lawyer. If you combine inflamed journalistic righteousness and Dickensian legalism, you wind up with what we’ve got now, the grindingly literal-minded pursuit (and defense) of an obviously lying adulterer who in other respects is an admirable leader. This pursuit takes place within an “information society,” and whatever else the Lewinsky affair represents, and however it ends, the affair signifies the final and disgusting apotheosis of that society’s inherent logic. In the Marquis de Sade’s utopia, everyone would have absolute dominion over everyone else’s body. In the information-age utopia, everyone’s privacy belongs to everyone else – and with a sense of entitlement, too. The president’s pursuers have turned the reading of near-pornography into a duty of citizenship. In ten years – no, five – all this will look insane.
In contrast, there is an artist like Robert Towne. In Without Limits, an actual person, Steve Prefontaine, is invested with a private self as well as a public performing self – he’s seen, in other words, with the resources of imagination found in fiction, precisely the resources left out of the mortifying spectacle that is now tearing apart the republic. As Towne tells it, Prefontaine, or Pre, the great American long-distance runner (who died, at age 24, in 1975), was a creature of pure will comparable to a medieval ascetic or saint – a man capable of enduring unimaginable amounts of pain in order to achieve the perfection of his effort. “Talent has nothing to do with it,” is Pre’s mantra.
As Billy Crudup plays him, Prefontaine is an eagle-crested warrior: His mouth set, his severe high forehead fronting the wind (Pre likes to lead the pack), Crudup is shown running in innumerable slo-mo close-ups. This proud animal in flight is lean and muscular, with strong cheekbones and an odd way of running, with his shoulders thrust back. He runs the way a ballet dancer walks – with an exaggerated commitment to the act that is either (according to taste) an assertion of style or an affectation. In all, it’s a little hard to judge the performance: Crudup bucks his head as he talks, like a stallion refusing the bit; his temperament is distant; he shies away – there’s no richness to his ego. But what seems amateurish about his performance may be what Towne wanted out of him – the cold, unreachable control of an American champion.
Pre is essentially a mystery. He is perceived through the wondering eyes of Bill Bowerman, a formidable personage who never claims to understand his star athlete. Sutherland, who looks eagle-crested himself, with a strong flat crown of white hair and arched eyebrows, gives a shrewd and candid performance. His cheekbones are as pronounced as Crudup’s, so the two men together, allowing for the difference in height, might be father and son. In this Oedipal drama, the son overcomes his father by running in his own way, without regard for the coach’s instructions. At the heart of the movie is a series of races and furious disputes between Bowerman and Pre – the coach’s practical wisdom against the athlete’s arrogance, experience against genius, human sympathy against inhuman tolerance of pain. It’s not a conflict that means a great deal to me, but the respect for human mystery and intransigence displayed in it remains ennobling even if it isn’t emotionally satisfying.