Feature image courtesy of Sony Pictures

‘Gran Turismo’: an ode to motorsports

By Andre Davancens, September 12, 2023

Video game movies have a well-earned reputation for being awful, lifeless and inaccurate depictions of the game and its experience. “Gran Turismo” breaks the mold by capturing the fantasy imagined by many gamers, race fans and the main character Jann Mardenborough played by actor Archie Madekwe.

“Gran Turismo” is based on the true story of Mardenborough and his participation in the 2011 GT Academy and his racing career after his success in the academy. This true-story-approach separates the film from the idea of it being a videogame movie and makes it a motorsports movie akin to “Ford v Ferrari” or “Days of Thunder.”

While predictable and cliché with narrow victories marking major plot points early in the film, “Gran Turismo” is a beautiful biopic that any motorsport or gearhead can get lost in. The roar of a Nissan R35 GTR and the subtle burbling hum of a Porsche 911 GT3RS mark both emotional highs and lows, the scream of victory or the silent panic of a race engineer worried for his friend. 

Entering the theater with the expectation of constant thrilling motorsport, you do not expect to be close to tears at times, but “Gran Turismo” breaks that. Mardenborough struggles for his father’s approval while also struggling for the approval of race engineer Jack Salter, played by actor David Harbour, who at every turn did not believe in him until he proved it was not just a game. 

Despite reframing the real events that occurred in Mardenborough’s life, taking decisive races and crashes throughout his career and lining them up into a convenient timeline, the story flows in a way that pulls the viewer along a rollercoaster of highs and lows.

The concept of thrusting a gamer into a track-ready Nissan 370z seemed crazy enough as it is. The film elevates reality, putting Mardenborough into a 200 mph capable racecar and expecting him to compete at the highest level of racing. While he proves his mettle in the academy, in season, loss is followed by loss, sowing doubt though his team and the world had about him.

This doubt climaxes in the controversial race around the “Green Hell,” the Nürburgring Nordschleife where Mardenborough crashed on the famous Flugplatz airfield. In real life, this crash resulted in the death of a spectator during a 2015 race. Critics call this specific reframing of events as insensitive because the movie uses this as a critical point in Mardenborough’s career as a racer representing the GT Academy.

In the theater, the gravity of the death of this spectator is not disrespected and the event, as presented in the film, brings the audience to the same reaction. A gasp of horror and silence as the film cuts between Mardenborough’s confused parents, played by Geri Halliwell and Djimon Hounsou, and Salter, running around the pits in a panic trying to find out if Mardenborough is alive.

In the aftermath, Mardenborough is left in a mental conflict of reaching out to his almost adopted, supportive, father figure in Salter or his historically unsupportive father. Driving back to the place of the accident, Salter leaves Mardenborough with the decision to drop the keys and leave motorsports, living a life of regret, or continue to see what he could truly become. 

The emotional drive back from the site of the accident, where Mardenborough decides to finish his lap around the “Green Hell,” is made by the beautiful shots of man, machine and nature backed by Bon Iver’s “Wash.”

“Gran Turismo” is a coming-of-age story, a battle for a father’s acceptance and a love letter to motorsport. The supporting cast holds the film together with emotional performances by Hounsou and Salter. Whether you are a motorsports fan or not, leaving “Gran Turismo” with universally powerful elements and tropes make the movie enjoyable to all.

Feature image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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