Christine Yoo’s documentary “26.2 to Life” tells the story of a unique race: the San Quentin Prison Marathon, run by inmates of the maximum-security facility in California within the walls of its heavily guarded yard.
As the film makes clear, with its deliberate, observational style, the mental fortitude required to endure this marathon is extraordinary: The competitors must trace the same tedious loop around a makeshift track more than 100 times to complete the 26.2-mile distance, with only their fellow inmates and a handful of volunteers to cheer them on. It’s not a setting that inspires a meditative state of mind.
Many of these men are facing life sentences with little hope of parole, and training for the marathon enables them to derive some meaning from their time inside. “It allows you to feel like you’re doing something normal,” one runner describes. “Like you’re doing something that’s not prison.”
Yoo was granted exceptional access to San Quentin, and when she depicts the mundane qualities of life there — inmates working odd jobs, writing letters, passing the time alone in their cells — the movie gains some of the penetrating clarity of one of Frederick Wiseman’s films. The in-prison material also has a lo-fi look that’s a refreshing change from the glossy style of many recent docs, and the various off-site interviews with family members of the inmates expand the scope of their stories in an enriching way.
When the movie concentrates on the race, it verges on sentimental, trotting out heartfelt speeches and cloying musical cues — not entirely unjustified, considering the inmates’ tragic back stories and inspiring achievements. But it compromises an already compelling event.
26.2 to Life
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.