During the final day of the inaugural F1 Accelerate Summit—the kind of media-business-technology conference indicative that, at least on paper, the aging motorsport is adapting to modern trends mandated by whatever weird paradigm business leaders in the western world have set up—British presenter Will Buxton reported on his panel with old blockbuster titan Jerry Bruckheimer and new blockbuster titan Joseph Kosinski, that, following their successful collaboration on Top Gun: Maverick, the two are tackling the next closest thing to pushing combat aircraft to the limit: car racing.
Even before it was announced this could’ve been seen as on the table as a follow-up project, considering that seven-time F1 champion and friend to Tom Cruise, Sir Lewis Hamilton, was set to be one of the elite pilots if not for the reality set in towards the obligation to being both an actor on a militaristically scheduled Hollywood production and fighting in the world’s most competitive motorsport (Maverick entered production in May of 2018, and Hamilton would go on to take 10 of his 11 grand prix victories that season during the film’s principal photography).
Listening in during a practice session as $15 million cars trundled around a fake marina in a Miami parking lot (yet another of the sport’s parent company’s financially dubious efforts), commentators noted that while it was reported that Brad Pitt would be joining the grid on an 11th team starting at Silverstone, this, despite sketchy reporting meant to generate hype, isn’t exactly true, and all the filming will happen outside of official sessions. From the sounds of it, Mercedes-AMG (Hamilton’s home team for a decade) have helped design a lower Formula-spec car that’ll be equipped with miniature digital 6K cameras using methods and developments made on Maverick.
Reporting also makes it seem that Pitt will be driving the car, which, like Maverick, will probably be partially true. Kosinski, Cruise, and Producer Christopher McQuarrie talked extensively about how there’s no way to fake the effects of real G-forces on an actor’s face as one of the big reasons to have them in the planes (although one thing they don’t mention is how much of this effect is blocked by having the actor’s faces mostly concealed by flight helmets). Unlike F-18s, however, open-wheeled race cars don’t and can’t have versions where a second seat can be retrofitted, meaning that to create a similar effect the actors will have to be piloting the car at times.
What’s probably not going to happen is the car being piloted by Pitt in any images close up to his face. Open-wheeled cars aren’t easy to drive, and even harder at the limit. There’s a big difference in the look of a race car being at the absolute limit riding off a curb with the tires just about to step out as the car brushes inches past a wall versus what it looks like when a car’s going at an easy fast speed. Kosinski and Bruckheimer (and producer Hamilton) I’m sure will be looking for the most proximate images and will employ a host of professional stunt and racing drivers to accomplish it. Unlike some of his acting counterparts, Pitt’s not a pro driver, nor is he a do-you-own-stunts actor anywhere near the same level as Cruise (lest we forget, the actors in Maverick weren’t really flying the planes). Even if he spent a lot of time on track and on sims (and as we’re being told, it’s not so easy going from gamer to racer), it’s unlikely he could get up to apparent speed in so little time. Even though misleading advertising will push it as such, it’s not like when Steve McQueen tried to enter the legendary 24-hour endurance race to film his 1971 masterpiece Le Mans (although, he did come in second at that year’s 12 Hours of Sebring only a few years prior to the shoot, so maybe he could’ve pulled it off).
Kosinski hasn’t talked much about the Le Mans, but at every chance he’s mentioned John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, a film made up of stunning racing footage that shows what people really want is to just watch fast cars drive in all their mechanical glory, like in the opening scene that features an almost an entire onboard lap around the legendary street track at Monaco, or shots strapped to the chassis of the little rocket ships, looking back at the actors as they run up a road in the Belgian countryside or along a bumpy banked curve built by maniacal fascists in the 1920s, one wrong move sending them flying into any number of European forests.
While the racing in Grand Prix is unbelievable, both as a feat of human spirit and in the “how the hell did they film this?” way, its storytelling off track is lackluster. Frankenheimer said he had the choice to model the film after Test Pilot or Grand Hotel, eventually opting for the former. The result is something close to Howard Hawks’ forgotten 1965 stock-car (and James Caan breakout) film Red Line 7000, where on-track drama and whipping camera work is merely the apotheosis of the conflicts brewing in the innumerable hotel rooms along the tour. Grand Prix doesn’t so much struggle with its obligation to be a coherent drama and 70mm roadshow attraction as much it’s just not as focused on the former—it’s focused on pushing the limits of film to match that of a racing car's top speed.
More than anything—more than time, distance, and tech—what’s going to separate Kosinski and Bruckheimer’s effort from making a 21st-century version of Frankenheimer’s whirling roadshow, is that most people involved in the sport in the 1960s wanted nothing to do with the Hollywood film. Formula 1, historically, is a sport of pompous, arrogant, ultra-wealthy with a death wish supplemented by a nationalist drive. A Hollywood picture had nothing to do with them. Now, the filmmakers are welcomed, with everyone in the paddock excitedly wondering if they’ll get a bit role or cameo. It’s going to be a propaganda piece for a sport that 50 years ago every race had a 20% chance of death and has now taken on a family-friendly tone where racing drivers have to play “Never Have I Ever” or hang out with James Corden to fulfill PR responsibilities. They’re making a Top Gun 2 on wheels, but instead of updating the Department of Defense’s message, they’re going to be brand-boosting for a sport the fascists saw as the new gladiatorial combat.