This article contains spoilers for Gran Turismo.
In his new film Gran Turismo, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie) steps away from the sci-fi and horror tales he’s been spinning to tell a story—taken from real life—of a video gamer who became so good at simulated race car driving on the titular PlayStation game that he actually made the leap to becoming a professional race car driver, reportedly driving in more than 200 races and managing to hold his own against drivers who had been behind the wheel their entire lives.
The young man in question is Jann Mardenborough, played by Archie Madekwe in the film, and he is a native of England, although he spent most of his life growing up in Cardiff, Wales. It’s been pointed out already that neither Madekwe nor anyone else in his family employs a Welsh accent—something that a lot of less discerning viewers (especially in the U.S. and other territories outside the UK) might not notice, but which is perhaps a subtle reflection on the film’s overall approach to Mardenborough’s story.
Films based on true stories are almost never slavishly faithful to the facts of the main character’s life, those of the characters around them, or even the substance or chronology of the events that the film chronicles. These aren’t documentaries or investigative news reports; they’re meant on some level to be mass entertainment or at least a dramatic narrative, and life rarely lends itself to the kind of structure needed to propel a film forward in such fashion.
But Gran Turismo, which is not a very good film to begin with for other reasons, plays so fast and loose with the facts that it nearly creates an entirely fictional narrative, especially in the second half of the movie. It’s also a wasted opportunity in some ways, because the movie raises some interesting questions that it never really explores past a surface level, settling instead to aim for a triumphant crowdpleaser that drifts further and further from the truth to achieve its payoff.
Yet just how close did it get to following the trail blazed by its incredible subject matter?
The Real Jann Mardenborough
Jann Mardenborough was born in September 1991 and, as noted above, spent most of his life in Wales. The son of former English footballer Steve Mardenborough, he was (according to the film) an avid player of Gran Turismo, the racing simulation game created by Kazunori Yamauchi and first released by Sony PlayStation in 1997. (As of 2018, the series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and, as of 2021, was still the best-selling video game property on the platform.)
In the film, a friend of Jann’s points him to a competition launched by Nissan marketing exec Danny Moore to recruit gamers for the GT Academy, in which players would get an actual opportunity to become race car drivers for real. Although Jann’s father brings him to work on the morning of the qualifying race, he leaves despite his father’s protestations—makeing it online in time for the race. Which he wins, of course, earning himself a spot at the Academy.
The real Mardenborough did indeed compete for a spot at the GT Academy and beat out some 90,000 other contestants for the prize, however even from the jump the facts and fictions begin to blur. For instance, Mardenborough finished in the top eight, according to The Guardian, but in the film, it seems as though he finished at number one.
That’s a bit of dramatic license for sure, although the relatively harmless kind that these kinds of films deploy all the time to pump up the story a bit. The film and Jann’s real life more or less parallel each other for a while after this point. In the film, Jann rises to the top of the class at GT Academy, eventually beating out the other recruits and finishing decently enough in his last qualifying race (in Dubai) to earn his professional license and sign a contract to become an official Nissan driver.
Jann Mardenborough in real life did earn his license and become a professional racer, although it’s difficult to say how closely the film follows his journey to that achievement and whether the races depicted in the film are accurate to the ones he actually participated in. The film’s lengthy middle portion is also its weakest, a series of montages of training and races that all blur into one another, while the racing sequences themselves veer between well-staged and incomprehensible.
The film’s version of Jann, played rather blandly by Madekwe, is almost solely defined by his desire to get out of Cardiff and become a race car driver. While lip service is given to the question of whether simulated skills can translate to real life (a question just as relevant now as it was then), it’s never really explored in any depth once the movie catapults its protagonist onto the track. From there, it’s a conventional sports movie drama all the way.
Are the Other Characters Real?
The absolute best aspect of Gran Turismo is David Harbour’s performance as Jack Salter, a former driver working as a mechanic for pro American racer Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), who becomes the very reluctant trainer for the GT Academy recruits and eventually the personal trainer for Jann. Harbour, as one might expect from the Stranger Things and Thunderbolts actor, is outstanding in the role. He takes on the job despite his justifiable doubts about the whole Nissan plan, and runs the Academy like a Marine boot camp. He’s funny and cranky as hell, yet he never flags once at his duties, even if he’s a bit disbelieving about the whole enterprise.
Once the other drivers mostly drop away, a great deal of the movie becomes about the relationship between Salter and Jann, with Salter gradually gaining respect for his protege, and Jann seeing Salter as a surrogate father, especially since his own dad cannot wrap his head around his son’s ambitions. Salter, however, does not and did not exist. He is an entirely fictional creation, although he may be at least inspired by other people in Jann’s life. According to Digital Spy, one of them may be Gavin Gough, a trainer and sports hypnotist who worked at GT Academy. Another, according to the Guardian, may have been Nissan team manager Bob Neville.
But Jack Salter himself, with his devil-may-care attitude, love for Black Sabbath tunes, and dark racing past of his own, is completely made up.
So is Danny Moore, the Nissan marketing exec played with a swing-for-the-fences, slightly histrionic flare, courtesy of The Lord of the Rings’ own Orlando Bloom. Moore, who may have been derived from real-life GT Academy creator and Nissan exec Darren Cox, is far less fleshed out than Salter or even Jann for that matter. He waves his arms around a lot and runs around and looks concerned as his plans seem to falter, and that’s just about all there is to the character.
Every movie needs a villain too, but since real life doesn’t often provide them in convenient fashion, the writers of Gran Turismo made up Nicholas Capa, the arrogant, surly, entitled driver of indeterminate but vaguely Aryan-looking origin for whom Salter is initially working. Capa drives dirty, scowls a lot, and can’t walk past someone without shoving them, and becomes of course Jann’s chief rival on the track. As far as villains go, if Capa were any more cardboard he’d be a stand-up in a movie theater lobby.
A Real-Life Tragedy and a Cheap Ploy
The third act of Gran Turismo is both its strongest cinematically, and yet its most problematic in terms of its relationship to the truth. Jann’s first race after officially signing with Nissan is at Germany’s notorious Nürburgring Nordschleife track, known as the “Green Hell.” Jann starts the race well but at a particular corner, his car becomes airborne, sailing off the track and into a spectator area. Jann is injured yet recovers fairly quickly, but a spectator is killed.
The death leads the young racer to question whether he should even continue pursuing his dream, while other racers, the authorities, and Nissan itself all point the finger at Nissan’s GT Academy program and the whole idea of turning gamers into professional drivers. Jann is cleared of any fault in the accident, however, and despite the sentiment against the gamers, Moore and Salter decide to run a three-man team at the next major event, 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Although he is initially shaky in the race, Jann gains confidence, especially when he has to take over in the final lap for one of the other drivers on the team. This pits him against Capa, whom he weaves his way around to take the front position on the last straightaway, earning the Nissan team third place and a spot on the podium, although if you’re not watching closely, you would think that they won the thing.
More importantly, however, the victory at 24 Hours of Le Mans took place in 2013, while the accident at Nürburgring, in which a spectator was, indeed, tragically killed, happened in 2015… two full years later.
The movie uses the incident, in which a real person lost their life, as a way to create a crisis for its protagonist, a crisis from which he can draw the strength to regain his confidence and eventually return to the sport he loves in triumph. Except that none of it happened that way at all. Gran Turismo sets up a fictional scenario that exploits a real-life tragedy purely to score some big, “stand up and cheer” moments in the third act of its racing movie.
In movie terms, it works. The third act, as we mentioned, is the film’s best. The accident as portrayed is truly terrifying, Jann and Salter (especially the latter) get some meaty scenes to play, and the Le Mans race is grippingly shot and edited, leading up to a cathartic moment of victory. But the movie pushes the truth so far that once you know the way it really went down, the whole thing feels like a bit of a fraud.
Does Gran Turismo Succeed?
As of 2023, Jann Mardenborough is still racing, competing most recently in Japan. The epilogue of the film states that he has competed in over 200 races and actually served as his own stunt double for the movie. Take away the true story trappings, and the shameful manipulation (more so than usual) of real events, and Gran Turismo is in many ways a typical sports movie, full of moments of triumph and disappointment, and fueled mainly by the sequences involving the sport itself.
But the movie skates past deeper questions of simulated racing versus real racing (or any simulated versus real sport), and whether proficiency at one can extend to the other (although clearly it did for Jann Mardenborough). Blomkamp’s movie settles for a narrative and characters that are largely an inch deep. Most of the movie is told in montages and very few scenes get room to breathe. The racing scenes have a few unique flourishes, such as Jann imagining he’s driving in the Gran Turismo game as the car expands around him, but are largely incoherent until we get to the much better Le Mans sequence.
And no character, except Harbour’s Salter and, to a degree, Madekwe’s Jann, is given anything to work with. Jann’s girlfriend is literally presented as an armpiece, flown out to Tokyo at a moment’s notice just to gaze adoringly up at Jann and say almost nothing, while his parents (Djimon Hounsou and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell Horner) wear the proper looks of concern, and that’s about it.
A fascinating true story has been squandered, sanded down to fit the formula of a typical Hollywood sports movie, and the eventual reckless abandonment of the real story in favor of formulaic melodramatics makes the movie’s faults egregious. Yes, Harbour is terrific; yes, the final race and some visual flourishes add excitement to the third act; but in the end, it’s all an empty vehicle and, let’s face it, meant to sell Nissans and PlayStations and copies of Gran Turismo. That’s one truth this movie can’t steer its way around.
Gran Turismo is in theaters now.