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McLaren Review

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A documentary detailing the life and tragic death of Bruce McLaren, the New Zealand racing driver and engineer who enjoyed success on the track, before founding one of the most successful Formula One teams in history.

★★★★★

Pity any racing driving documentary which has to compete with the likes of Senna. Asif Kapadia’s seminal F1 doc set the blueprint for creating heart-pounding thrills through carefully-selected archive footage, ingenious editing and emotional interviews. The BAFTA-winning film set a monumentally high bar – one which Roger Donaldson’s new film largely fails to clear.

Non-petrolheads need not apply.

As McLaren is at pains to remind us, Bruce McLaren is a pivotal figure in motor racing. He was a prodigious young racer, winning his first Grand Prix aged just 22; he was a prodigiously gifted engineer and manager, whose innovations changed auto racing; he came from a relatively humble New Zealand background to dominate a wealth-driven sport; and his name remains at the head one of the sport’s most successful teams. His is a story worth telling, it would seem. But laid out as a hagiography, Bruce’s life follows a straightforward path to success, with little in the way of drama or conflict.

He wins a race. He wins another race. He starts a racing team. The racing team wins some races. At every turn, Bruce is triumphant, seemingly unchallenged. Friends and colleagues provide reverent talking-heads commentary throughout, but none of them offer insights that really get under the hood of the man. What sort of person was he? What motivated him? Only McLaren’s own words, from a eulogy to a friend about how “life is measured in achievement, not in years alone”, offers some clues.

Dramatic tension only comes from the danger of the track. At a time when “health-and-safety” was a fanciful concept in Formula 1, fatal crashes were a daily reality. Bruce himself reaches such a fate, yielding a genuinely emotional finale. But again, there’s too much of the ‘what’, and not enough of the ‘why’; racing’s cavalier approach to safety goes unexplored, shrugged off as the status quo. (Senna, incidentally, conveyed this mortal risk with a greater weight.)

McLaren is an undeniably well-researched film, gathering archive footage from an era when cameras were not always trained on the track, and it clearly comes from a place of great respect and admiration. But it’s assembled in such a way that can only appeal to the target Top Gear demographic. Non-petrolheads need not apply.

An earnest but one-note portrait of a racing legend that never quite gets up to speed.

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