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John Gilbert: Race fans can find bright spots, major flaws in movie 'Driven'

Because it is the week leading up to the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500, it seemed appropriate to get to a theater and see the new movie, "Driven," which is about auto racing.

Because it is the week leading up to the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500, it seemed appropriate to get to a theater and see the new movie, "Driven," which is about auto racing.
It's been awhile since there was a truly compelling auto-racing movie. "Grand Prix," starring James Garner, was the standard by which all other attempts at motorsports movies must be judged, and the Steve McQueen classic "LeMans" is a close second. Tom Cruise's "Days of Thunder" had its moments.
I had held out great hope that the movie "Driven" might make it big. Sylvester Stallone had stalked the international Formula 1 series with the intention of making a big-time contemporary movie based on the Grand Prix scene, but when racing boss Bernie Ecclestone balked at helping, Stallone, his co-writers and producers switched over to the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and went at it full bore.
To borrow the phrase, the movie is not a "full bore." It has some gripping scenes, even if the plot is a little thin. Basically, it's about a young driver who bursts onto the CART scene and challenges the wily but elusive German driver who is defending champion. So the rookie's car-owner brings another wily old veteran, played by Stallone, out of retirement in order to shield the rookie -- both literally and figuratively -- toward the championship.
Stallone apparently hung out in the pits and got to know some real racers, and the footage of actual races is spectacular, while some of the special effects also are outstanding. But why do movie-makers have to take certain elements of fact and enhance and expand upon them until they go from unrealistic to outrageously bizarre?
The biggest trouble with most racing movies is that they take something that is real, most notably the serious threat of crashes, and they dwell on crashes with a morbid fascination, which leads them to overdoing crashes. "Driven" does that, too. For most of the movie, the crashes are held to a minimum, to the point where I was impressed that it would be free of that harness. But it's made up for at the end, where a couple of crash-fests send you out of the theater with visions of special effects. Maybe that was necessary so you wouldn't think about how the plot of the movie was pretty weak.
In real life, there are crashes among road-racers, but they happen rarely, thankfully. When they do happen, the drivers rarely get injured. In movies, crashes are frequent, and stressed with slow-motion techniques. In "Driven," the cars that bump always seem to fly up in the air -- way up there -- and then crash and bounce in dramatic use of technical embellishments, usually ending up upside down.
In real life, course workers respond instantly to crashes, while the drivers continue on at caution speed, a grim reminder of how dangerous the races are, and how the drivers know that they'd compound the safety issues If they were to stop and help. In the movie, the crashing car flies way up in the air, through a billboard, and ends up in a small little lake, upside down. The drivers on the track go backward -- against the flow of racers -- to get to the crash site and try to save the driver, long before any safety workers can get near the site.
In real life, drivers are linked with their car owner or team manager by 2-way radio. In the movie form, believe it or not, girlfriends and hangers-on seem to be able to get their hands on the headsets and wind up arguing with the team managers about all manner of things, suggesting a driver go against team orders and pass, even if it requires reckless driving. And the driver hears all this. There even are scenes where one driver speaks encouragement to a teammate while both are racing. Apparently, Stallone, who is credited for the screenplay, must have gone to races where the drivers and teams used party lines instead of 2-way radios.
The movie does a great job of depicting what pressures are on drivers, and it traces some of the real CART venues, with footage of real CART race cars and drivers. It also veers over to a race in Germany, where CART has never raced. Obviously, that was footage the film executives decided should be retained, so the "German Grand Prix" became part of the CART series.
There also is ridiculous stuff, where the impetuous young driver gets mad and jumps in a car that is on display in downtown Chicago, starts it up, and roars away into the night. Stallone, of course, hustles after him, jumps into another car on display, and speeds off into the night. Down the freeway! On the wrong side as much as on the right side. When they finish their long, hard dash, they spin to a stop, have a bit of a heart-to-heart, and then walk away, leaving strewn cars pointing every which way, and their cars sideways in the middle of an intersection.
Their penalty is that CART administration is going to fine them $25,000 for the incident. In the real world, you'd be slapped into jail, with a huge fine, and you'd basically be history as far as racing goes.
There are far too many exaggerations where real-life situations would be much more interesting. For example, tracing the meteoric rise of Alex Zanardi, from unknown rookie to runner-up, then to CART series champion in only his second and third seasons, would make a great backdrop from which to build a screenplay.
However, even though fact would have been more interesting than fictionalized and unrealistic exaggerations, you should probably go to the movie. After all, it is Indy week, and the exceptional, close-up, real-world footage of race cars in extremely close proximity is impressive.
No, "Driven" is not going to reach cult status. But race fans can enjoy most of it, and then store it away in the old memory bank while we all wait for another moviemaker, who happens to be a real race fan, and who could do more to depict the drama and tension of a CART race, even if meant suppressing the urge to overplay end-over-end flips and disastrous crashes waiting on every lap.
John Gilbert is a sports writer for the Up North Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at john.gilbert@mx3.com .
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