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First Olympics: Athens 1896, The

Sony Pictures // Unrated // August 5, 2008
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 5, 2008 | E-mail the Author
It's been over twelve years since the 100th anniversary Olympic Games in Atlanta, an event highlighted by Muhammad Ali's lighting of the Olympic flame, Kerri Strug's one-footed vault in gymnastics, and the bombing of Centennial Park. Looking backwards several years and flashing forward to the most current games in Beijing, the Olympics have always been about surmounting the odds in athletic determination and about pseudo-political and cultural head-butting. Has it always been this way? According to several historical accounts that culminate in this television mini-series, The First Olympics: Athens 1896, the Olympics have more or less stayed thematically consistent since the games' rejuvenation. Categorized by tales of hometown heroism and strong ethnocentrism, this modestly-budgeted '80s docu-miniseries about the rise of modern Olympics paints a highly-detailed picture of the first games' construction -- with special emphasis on the American team's strife.

The Film:

NOTE: As to be expected, several mild spoilers about 100+ years-ago history are to follow.

The first half of the miniseries, well-edited into two movie-length segments here, covers the American team's initial assembly as it hopscotches from important collegiate campus to another in search of willing athletes. After the hefty push from Pierre de Counterbein and some persuasiveness, Dr. William Stone (David Ogden Steirs, "M*A*S*H" TV series) finds himself in the position of team organizer. It becomes the basic core of this rather American-centered documentary, but it's not completely singularly focused. Elsewhere in the world, we also follow the timeline of Grecian marathon runner and soldier Spyridon Lewis as his ascent as a cultural hero starts in his modest romantic roots. Furthermore, concentration also falls on Australian runner Edwin Flack and his struggles to push through his stuffy student competitors in college. The First Olympics keeps an informative tone through here, seemingly taking a few dramatic liberties with a few loose gaps in history to energize its narrative. Oh, make sure to wave hello to Angela Lansbery ("Murder, She Wrote") in her cameo near the beginning as the mother of one of the athletes.

Amid opposition from several directions that cite the impertinence of "games" and such, an American team with several unique characters -- including iconic Olympians Robert Garrett (Hunt Block, "Knot's Landing") and James Connelly (David Caruso, "CSI Miami") -- start the arduous process of training for the events. It's a little different than the training we're used to seeing on modern Olympiad television; these guys, though experienced in the ways of short and long-distance running, haven't ever really experienced many of the vaulting and hurling sports. In preparation, they've got to assemble their own makeshift variants in an effort to work towards the only recorded values, being that of world records, jotted in the books. After we're subjected to monotonous yet exciting and well-filmed training sequences that could've been trimmed to nearly half its length, The First Olympics comes out with a gasp-inducing dramatic little conclusion about how the American athletes could possibly not get to the Olympics on time.

Riding on the coattails of Chariots of Fire's type of rhythm, the solid performances in the second "half" of The First Olympiad still struggle to carry its repetitive nature towards the expected climax. Caruso's portrayal of the Irish outsider Connelly makes an effort at strong dramatic strength, while Steirs' William Stone essentially feels like a serious-toned version of his "M*A*S*H" character Charles Winchester -- which isn't really a bad thing, seeing as how his natural carriage as a stout actor works out to his advantage as the emotive team organizer. Their placements in the events leading to the games become the real focus of the docu-drama, though it's obvious that their side quibbles are merely diversions that try to keep the audience floating along until the dramatic games themselves. The rest of both the main and supporting cast hold their own in a dramatic tone that shows its '80s roots, merely keeping the slowly-edited drama afloat until the mounting climax in Athens.

Once in Greece for the games, you should get a beverage and a snack handy because you'll be sitting there for quite a while if you plan on watching The First Olympics' athletic competition in one sitting. Much too long and tedious for its own good, these filmmakers milked its outstanding minimalist set design and spot-on location shots for all they're worth. We witness just about each and every event revolving around the Americans and Australian Edward Fleck in exhaustive detail, from the actual athletic performance in all its edited glory to the endless repetition of the Star-Spangled Banner playing over and over again as the athletes stand atop the podium. The tense build-up to the Games can only go so far, which results in a bit of boredom within a very boisterous and electric event.

It's actually a shade on the indulgent side too, as all the film's dramatics lean towards a smug attitude regarding the American team. Close-ups of our athletes, multiple camera angles, shots of the crowd, shots of the conductor orchestrating our national anthem -- everything repeats time after time for a good hour-plus span. It's a little maddening, even as an American with the understanding that the material is geared towards an interested American audience. With the first couple of trips up to the podium, soaking in the natural light and the pseudo-emotional context of each character's training culmination can be rewarding, but it's a card that gets played until the attractiveness gets rubbed off. There's spans of supplemental dialogue and quick check-ins with the American community spliced within there for breathers, but it's still not relieving enough.

But then we reach the big race -- the exhaustive marathon -- and everything boils up well again in the narrative's big culminating finale. Well-photographed and dramatically presented, it's a nice bit of footage that flip-flops between the highlighted American runners, Australian Edwin Fleck, and Greece's Spyridon Lewis as they power forward through the towns and hillsides of Greece up to the beautifully jam-packed stadium. Certainly there's a few debatable dramatic liberties possibly taken with the race, such as the large amount of alcohol consumed during the race and the way each of the collapsing athletes fall, but they're very competently pieced together with all the players clustered together for this epic's conclusion.

Sure, little facts can be scrutinized about each character's history, but as a whole The First Olympics: Athens 1896 gets a sizable chunk of history nailed down in a pleasant and absorbable fashion. It also highlights a couple of television stars' breakout roles, leading to Hunt Block's staple in daytime soap operas and David Caruso's bouncing character roles in both film and TV. At 240+ minutes long -- or just over four hours -- this docu-drama could've streamlined the material to a much leaner runtime with a bit of work in the editing room, but its expansive temperament and the naturally-photographed cinematography add a dash of realism in watching the first Olympics come and go in dramatic fashion.

The DVD:

Targeting post-Beijing consumers, Sony's DVD presentation of The First Olympics: Athens 1896 comes packed in a standard casing with the program spread across two discs. Unfortunately, that's all were working with on the two discs.

The Video:

Presented in its originally televised 1.33:1 fullframe presentation, I suspect The First Olympics looks a bit better than its initial televised state. Detail can be strong in certain scenes, but the source can't avoid its blurry state in others. Digital compression remnants and edge pixelation pops us frequently, as does a bit of the halo effect. Also, there's an unavoidably "dirty" feel to the entire program, draping a rather sandy haze over it. It's also rife with the "twitching pixel" syndrome, present in several darker backgrounds and in distant crowds. Considering these aspects, there's minimal print damage present and a healthy level of sharpness incorporated in the image -- all of which make this transfer wholly watchable.

The Audio:

The First Olympics sounds moderately well mixed, balancing the sound effects and musical accompaniment well with vocal clarity in its English 2.0 Stereo mix. It reflects the source audio too well, much like its video presentation. Still, were dealing with a tolerably balanced audio treatment. Subtitles are available in optional English and French languages.

The Extras:

Other than a Scene Selection and a few assorted Previews, nothing else is included. If more reading or fact checking is merited, hop over to the International Olympic Committee's website and bone up on a bit of research about the film's authenticity.


Final Thoughts:

Though it can get kind of tiresome in all its expanses of subdued theatrics and repetitive athletic sequences, The First Olympics: Athens 1896's textual concentration makes it worth a watch on its own. It knows how to have fun and be informative at the same time, making for a historical docudrama that's well worth the Rental following the post-Beijing spark of interest in the history of the Olympiad.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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