Film review: McLaren

by James Robins / 17 June, 2017

Bruce McLaren, left, and teammate Denny Hulme in the Can-Am series.

A celebratory account of a famous racer’s life traces his career from Muriwai to Monaco.

Racing drivers need to be a little mad. No normal person, no matter how brave, would strap themselves into a thin tube on an aluminium frame, their back resting against the heat of a churning engine, their thinly helmeted head buffeted by the wind as they steer their machine at breakneck speed into corners, straining the laws of physics as they go. To do this for a living, you must have a screw loose.

For the risks they take and the extreme danger they face, these drivers assume an aura of rarefied cool and, yes, even a kind of brash sexiness. Some of that debonair quality comes through in Roger Donaldson’s celebratory account of the life of New Zealander Bruce McLaren.

The film takes us from Muriwai Beach, where he thrashed jalopies, and the Remuera garage where he first tinkered with engines to the gleaming lights of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1962, the young hotshot shown smiling next to Princess Grace with an elaborate cup in his hands.

From there, McLaren conquers the American Can-Am series and begins building a team that, until recently, dominated Formula. 1.

It’s hard to watch McLaren, or indeed any sport documentary, without thinking of Senna, Asif Kapadia’s brilliant retelling of the life and death of Ayrton Senna (who won three Formula 1 titles as a McLaren driver).

That film, spliced seamlessly together from 90s-era television coverage and archive footage, had no talking heads or re-enactments, just a grainy, nostalgic evocation of a more exhilarating time.

Donaldson tries his best to capture this tone but has to resort to a parade of relatives and colleagues sharing anecdotes. Partly this is the limitation of the McLaren era: on-board cameras were rare, so we never get an equal of those stunning sequences in Senna when the music dies away, the engine scream rises and all we see is barriers rushing past.

McLaren died on a test run in 1970, at the too-young age of 32. Donaldson eulogises but thankfully does not deify his subject (as last year’s Richie McCaw doco did).

Rather, what remains is a portrait of a dedicated man who never lost his naive smile, never disappeared into his lavish riches, but instead donned grimy overalls and dirtied his hands alongside his crew, building cars from scratch. His principal attributes were humility and a quiet determination.



This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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