Review: 'Endurance' holds up in the long run
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Leslie Woodhead's "Endurance," the inspiring true story of Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, is more or less a kids' movie.
The "more" of the equation comes courtesy of magnificent cinematography and a semi-documentary format that's wildly incongruent with what we've seen in other Walt Disney productions. The "less" is conveyed with far greater gusto, via a proud lack of decent dialogue and a willfully haphazard approach to traditional narrative techniques.
Gebrselassie -- who plays himself in a quick prologue, and then again in the last third of the film -- is a charismatic screen presence. But it's hard not to be aware that this is a lavish re-enactment of actual events, rather than a total immersion in the ol' suspension of disbelief.
It's shocking to see legendary reclusive director Terrence Malick listed as one of the film's co-producers, but after a few minutes his participation makes perfect sense. Malick's obsessive focus on the wildlife creeping and crawling around Guadalcanal in "The Thin Red Line" had some filmgoers pulling their hair out in clumps a few months back, and there's a profusion of that sort of thing in "Endurance," too. This time around, however, it's evocative rather than self-consciously poetic.
To see Gebrselassie bounding across the grasslands in total sync with the surrounding countryside and all its inhabitants is to experience the wonders of a symbiotic planet in capsule form. It's just disappointing how quickly (and how often) that excitement dissipates when unschooled actors start reciting their perfunctory, Hemingway-direct dialogue.
Gebrselassie's family and neighbors are played by amateurs, and they're a real distraction. Several sequences, especially the death of the brood's loving mother, are quite moving. But you may just as often find yourself shuddering over bone-dry line readings. Then the young Gebrselassie (played for most of the film by Yonas Zergaw, the runner's real-life nephew) goes back to his training, and you're transfixed again.
These moments of excitement only end up magnifying Woodhead's unwillingness to let the momentum build as our hero glides towards a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics.
The thrills are continually dampened by empty panoramas and title cards that announce what we'll be looking at before we actually get to see it. It's a pretty nutty way to tell a story.
The point that the traditional, hard-working father has a limited view of his son's horizons is made quickly and repeated several times over. And Pop is almost mundanely abusive, not that that makes his physical approach to discipline any less awful. It just makes it less dramatic than it might be.
Woodhead is dealing with a community that has a grass-roots relationship with hard work and the good earth, but the people are portrayed as so spiritually complete that they verge on the saintly. It's strange that the conversations are mostly routine pronouncements of desire and counter-desire when the film is trying so hard to demonstrate the complexity of what many people might think is a simplistic lifestyle.
Then again, that could be Woodhead's goal.
There are a lot of subtitles, and the quick-to-digest sentences may be aimed at the younger audience members.
But even with the mounting demerits, watching Gebrselassie win the 10,000-meters in the final sequence is moving. The actual race at the Atlanta Olympics was covered by veteran Olympic documentarian Bud Greenspan, and the footage is so enthralling the rest of the movie practically falls from memory.
The running itself turns out to be the real heart of the matter when we should have had some idea of what Gebrselassie hoped he would find at the end of the big race. The movie implies that he's looking for more than just a medal, but that's about it as far as clues go. It's "Rocky" without a real statement of purpose from the lovable underdog.
"Endurance" may not be perfect, but your kids will sit through far less ambitious movies before the year is over, and the glimpse of another culture will do them good. There's no sex or nudity, and the father's swats at Haile are the only moments of violence. They're definitely portrayed as inappropriate. Rated PG. 83 minutes.
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