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A nyone who has done competitive distance running finds it a challenge to be objective about Steve Prefontaine. He was the Muhammad Ali of the sport: a popularizer, a matinee idol, a big mouth who made promises and usually delivered on them.

He had an aggressive style both on and off the track, running with fierce intensity in the middle of the race to try to break faster runners because he didn’t have that great a final "kick." When he took the national two-mile record in high school, he shaved seven seconds off the previous mark, and eventually captured seven American records between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. No US runner before or since has had the best times at so many different distances.

He openly criticized the venality and hypocrisy of the American Athletic Union, which kept athletes in penury to maintain their amateur status (Pre himself lived on food stamps after competing in the 1972 Olympics), and gave others the courage to break the system after his James Dean-like death in a one-car accident at the age of 24.

The twentieth anniversary of Prefontaine’s untimely 1975 passing awakened a slew of memories among his fans, which resulted in two separate feature films ("Prefontaine"—a 1997 pseudo bio-pic by the makers of "Hoop Dreams"—and the glossier "Without Limits" a year later). This documentary beat them out of the blocks.

"Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story" is visually sharp. There’s plenty of action footage, great stills, and on-camera comments by everyone from runners who raced him, coaches who trained him, and sportswriters who covered him, to girlfriends and former runner and rabid fan Dana Carvey. It’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t manage to get a couple minutes with another noted Pre fan, Tom Cruise, who was one of the executive producers of "Without Limits." In archival interview footage from early in his career, Prefontaine himself sounds like—I swear—Roger McGuinn! Interviewees are wisely shot at subtly different angles and distances, as well as being placed before a wide variety of backgrounds—from tracks to mountain vistas to a commercial fishing boat basin … even a castle.

A couple really nice touches: At the climax of his attempt at the tender age of 21 to beat the best in the world in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 meters (a few days after the slaying of the Israeli athletes), the film suddenly breaks the crowd roar with 200 meters left to show coach Bill Dellinger, a three-time Olympian, quietly speaking of his admiration for his protégé’s guts. And after telling the viewer repeatedly about "Pre’s people," the devoted fans who constituted his second wind, the film offers clips during the credits of nearly a dozen unknowns off the street talking about Pre.

I’m afraid the writing is not on a par with the visuals, however. Early on, Pre’s home stadium of Hayward Field is called "the Carnegie Hall of track"—a simile I find unintelligible except in the vaguest terms. His home town is too easily nutshelled with the usual clichés: "from the hillside shriek of the saws to the thunder of the docks … Things have always been tough in Coos Bay."

The soundtrack, what there is of it, is energizing but unobtrusive: a little slide guitar, some caustic electric lead, but rarely more than 15 seconds at a time.

Since producer Hollister was a designer at Nike, we get not only justified references to Prefontaine’s relationship with the firm through coach and co-founder Bill Bowerman and his "waffle" training shoes, but the comments of Phil Knight, ad clips of Agassi, Barkley and McEnroe, and most annoying, the pointless appearance of the Nike swoosh over the otherwise classy image of a footprint in the sand that concludes the film.

Ken Kesey narrates. His boyish, slightly folksy voice is neither instantly recognizable nor particularly imposing. He has a tendency to drop a word or name at the end of a sentence so that you can’t fully catch it, and the music sometimes obscures him. But as a fellow state resident and alumnus of the University of Oregon (he lettered in wrestling, not running), he was a decent choice for the job.

There is a kind of arc to the runner’s brief life from cocky youth to calmer maturity that is particularly mirrored in the attitudes of Mac Wilkins, the world-class discus thrower who was a classmate of Pre’s at Oregon. Annoyed that the runner got so much attention from girls and the press (Pre made the cover of Sports Illustrated as "America’s Distance Prodigy" his freshman year), Wilkins sarcastically nicknamed him "World" for world-famous. Later, the disc tosser explains that Prefontaine’s seeming arrogance "was him just being focused and honest," and in recalling the runner’s death Wilkins tearfully states they had a lot in common.

As I say, it’s difficult to know how well this trim package of war stories, racing footage, peppy music, and faces familiar only to the sport’s aficionados would touch a general viewer, but I think he or she would find the movie at least mildly engaging. For a small-time project made by non-film industry professionals, it’s pretty good.

David Loftus


David Loftus came of age in Coos Bay, entered Prefontaine’s high school four years after the star graduated, met Pre his first week of school, jogged a little way with the older runner after he witnessed Loftus’s first junior varsity race, and broke Pre’s freshman two-mile record before getting distracted by other activities. David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com


Erich Lyttle—Director
Scott Chambers—Executive Producer
Chris Petersen—Executive Producer
Geoff Hollister—Producer
Mike Chariker—Technical Director
Ken Kesey, Kenny Moore, Erich Lyttle—Writers
Ken Kesey—Narrator

1995, 58 minutes