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'Four Minutes': An Englishman's Running Record


Fifty-one years ago, the British runner Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Now a new TV movie, premiering tonight on ESPN2 called "Four Minutes," recreates that record-breaking moment. Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.


There's no genre of film more susceptible to cliche then the sports movie. For every tale of an athlete or team that beats insurmountable odds, there are, well, 20 other stories about athletes or teams that beat insurmountable odds. That's why you've got to give a smart little gem of a movie like "Four Minutes" its due. Some of the credit has to go to its choice of subject. Bannister defied the stereotype of the prodigy athlete oozing natural talent. He was an Oxford University medical student who tried track as a diversion to his studies. But even his wobbly first run caught the eye of a man who would eventually become his coach. He's played in this scene by the veteran character actor Christopher Plummer.

(Soundbite of "Four Minutes")

Mr. JAMIE MACHLACHLAN (Actor): (As Roger Bannister) Come on.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (As Archie Mason) Mr. Bannister.

Mr. MACHLACHLAN: (As Bannister) Yes, sir?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mason) What did he do?

Unidentified Man: Four minutes, 53 seconds, Mr. Mason.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mason) If you'd stop bouncing up and down like a bloody kangaroo, you could have knocked 20 seconds off that.

Mr. MACHLACHLAN: (As Roger Bannister) I've never worn spikes before, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mason) You've never run in spikes?

Mr. MACHLACHLAN: (As Bannister) Nor on a cinder track.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mason) Well, keep at it, lad. Keep at it. There might be a place for you here one day. Who knows?

WALLENSTEIN: "Four Minutes" dramatizes the tension between Bannister's passion to break the four-minute record with that for his training to be a doctor. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him was that it was his intellectual side that helped him become a superior athlete. Bannister obsessively monitored everything, from his lung capacity to the oxygen levels in the blood to give him the edge he so desperately sought.

(Soundbite of "Four Minutes")

Unidentified Woman: So this is the laboratory of the mad mile scientist?

Mr. MACHLACHLAN: (As Bannister) Yes. I'm Dr. Frankenstein. And I'm also my own monster. I'm using the state of my PhD.

Unidentified Woman: So it's important for your training?

Mr. MACHLACHLAN: (As Bannister) Vital. If oxygen doesn't get to the muscles, lactic acid builds up and the muscles cramp up. I have to find a way to avoid that.

(Soundbite of knocking noise)

WALLENSTEIN: One of the strengths of the movie is that it doesn't glorify Bannister, who could be arrogant and single-minded. That helps actor Jamie Machlachlan, who gets to explore those aspects of Bannister, making him a fully realized character. The credit there goes to veteran sportswriter Frank Deford, an NPR contributor who wrote the screenplay.

"Four Minutes" gets added power by vividly recreating the time and place Bannister broke the record. In post-World War II England, his triumph provided a dose of national pride badly needed to a demoralized country. The movie nicely captures the delirium that captivated the world as Bannister and his rivals approached the record.

"Four Minutes" is an unexpected pleasure coming from ESPN, which has produced a handful of original movies in recent years that came in the ripped-from-the-headlines mold. Reaching back farther into history is more advisable in these troubled times of modern sports, plagued as they are by illegal drugs and skyrocketing salaries. "Four Minutes" feels worlds away from all that, and that's precisely its appeal.

CHADWICK: The TV movie "Four Minutes" airs tonight on ESPN2. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter.


CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.