Gran Turismo true story: The hit movie mines a real death for inspirational drama. It’s gross.


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Oct 23, 2023

Gran Turismo true story: The hit movie mines a real death for inspirational drama. It’s gross.

Gran Turismo, the movie, is not based on Gran Turismo, the car-racing video game, in part because, as the former frequently reminds the audience, the latter isn’t a game at all. The line between a

Gran Turismo, the movie, is not based on Gran Turismo, the car-racing video game, in part because, as the former frequently reminds the audience, the latter isn’t a game at all. The line between a video game and a “driving simulator” feels like an awfully porous one, calling up childhood memories of trying to convince my parents that I was building hand-eye coordination by spending hours at the arcade. To be fair, the story of Jann Mardenborough makes a stronger case than my roll of quarters and I did. After playing the game at a friend’s house so obsessively that the child’s parents eventually caved and just gave him their PlayStation, Jann, played in the film by Archie Madekwe, spent more than a decade mastering Gran Turismo and its sequels. After a brief attempt to study engineering in college, he dropped out and applied instead to the GT Academy, a promotional venture designed to illustrate that the game’s simulation was so meticulously realistic that it could actually produce real-life racing champions. And despite the fact that Mardenborough had never been behind the wheel of a professional race car, it did just that, propelling him to a long career in the sport.

The fantasy of video games as a training ground for non-virtual heroics goes back at least as far as the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, in which a teenage arcade whiz discovers that the game he’s been playing is actually designed to test his fitness for a real interstellar battle. (Ender’s Game, a novel with a more morally complicated vision of a similar premise, was published the following year.) But Gran Turismo took me farther back during the climactic race, when Jann’s race car suddenly flies apart, piece by piece, and he’s suddenly back in his childhood bedroom with a steering wheel–shaped controller and a mug of tea, his father standing disapprovingly in the door. Jann wasn’t just a gamer anymore; he was Luke Skywalker, realizing that taking down the Empire was no different from shooting womp rats back home. You never know what the apparently idle pursuits of childhood might be preparing you for—and, importantly, neither do your parents.

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The marketing for Gran Turismo leans heavily on the idea that it’s based on a true story—in some markets it’s even been officially retitled Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story—and the film presents Jann Mardenborough’s success as proof of concept that playing games can lead to greater things. Of course, the movie, which was directed by Neill Blomkamp (Chappie), needs to underline that racing in the real world is not exactly the same as doing it in a simulator, or there would be nothing for Jann to overcome by the snobbish taunts of his non-gamer competitors (although there are plenty of those, most delivered by Josha Stradowski’s Nicholas Capa, whose face seems fixed in a perpetual sneer). There are the obvious physical factors: The real cars are loud and hot and constantly vibrating, and David Harbour’s instructor informs the GT Academy’s trainees that the gravitational forces that drivers are subjected to are twice what astronauts experience on liftoff. But more than that, people die. You make the smallest mistake, he warns them, and “someone’s dead, because racing is dangerous.”

Someone does die, in fact. In a race at Germany’s Nürburgring race track, Jann’s car goes airborne and flies into the stands and takes the life of a spectator. Mardenborough says he insisted the incident be part of the film, and that leaving it out would have been “a disservice to the audience.” But the screenplay, by Jason Hall, Zach Baylin, and Alex Tse, doesn’t just include it. It makes it the pivotal setback on Jann’s path to becoming a real racer. Early on in their training, Harbour’s trainer warns his video game champions that “if you get in a wreck out here, you can’t hit reset,” and that’s the lesson Jann has to absorb to before he’s ready for his final race at Le Mans, the one that could officially get him his professional racing license.

The movie has altered the timeline of the crash, which actually took place in 2015, two years after Mardenborough’s third-place finish at the 2013 Le Mans, but although some critics have protested the “tasteless reframing” of a real-life tragedy, the way it’s used is less troubling than the way it’s depicted. Combining Jann’s struggle to make the pros with his struggle to return to racing is standard biopic stuff—even the vastly more sophisticated Oppenheimer reshapes its subject’s history to the demands of its chosen narrative. But Gran Turismo is so fixated on its hero’s journey that it neglects everyone else, including the person whose death he caused. Although we see Jann’s car flying off the track and into the small group of spectators seated on a nearby hill, the crash itself is confined to his driver’s-seat point of view. We don’t know anyone’s even been hurt, let alone killed, until he wakes up in the hospital. We never learn the victim’s name, which was Andy Gehrmann, or those of the several other people injured that day, or anything about how Mardenborough or the racetrack officials handled the aftermath of the accident. There are only two facts that matter: Jann feels terrible about it, and it wasn’t his fault.

On the one hand, Gran Turismo wants us to understand that, in the real world, hurling a car around corners at hundreds of miles an hour can have consequences. But the movie, which was co-produced by Sony Pictures and PlayStation Productions, also wants us to feel those consequences as little as possible. The people Jann’s car injures and kills don’t even qualify as NPCs; they’re just a disembodied concept of loss, with no more substance than it takes to haunt his conscience for a few minutes of screen time. And what saves him in the end isn’t knowing that racing is real, but pretending that it’s not. The benefit of training on a simulator is that it allows drivers to take chances that would be far too risky in real life, knowing the only price of failure is a return to the starting line. Last November, driver Ross Chastain won a spot in the NASCAR championships by deliberately steering into a wall on the final lap, using the added friction to shoot ahead five places in seconds. Given that the tactic also shredded the side of his race car, it’s not a trick you can use often, but Chastain said he’d practiced it plenty of times—on his Nintendo GameCube. Jann does something similar, if less flamboyant, at Le Mans, taking his last turn at an unconventional angle that, we’re led to understand, only a gamer would try. Early in the movie, when Jan is still just a dreamer sitting at his desk, his father warns him, “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to leave this room.” But the movie promises us that if you try hard enough, life can stay a game forever.