Dueling Nissan Movies: ‘Gran Turismo’ and ‘Wanted: The Escape of Carlos Ghosn’
Want to see a movie that combines all of the tropes of an inspirational sports movie with a popular gaming franchise, while also featuring a Mac and Me level of product placement from Sony and Nissan? That movie is Gran Turismo.
Based on the racing simulator/video game of the same name, it tells the story of an effort to get expert users of the game into a program to train them to become real-life race car drivers.
It’s an intriguing premise, and the film features a winning lead performance and some exciting racing scenes. But the level of sports movie cliché is almost overwhelming; as is the notion that this movie about a craven marketing exercise is, itself, a craven marketing exercise.
Archie Madekwe (best known as one of the loathsome grad students in Midsommar) plays Jann Mardenborough, a young Welshman who’s an expert hobbyist in the Gran Turismo auto racing simulation game. Living with his retired soccer pro dad (Djimon Hounsou) and his mom (Baby Spice herself, Geri Halliwell), he dreams of making it professionally, although his dad wants him to get a real job.
But when Nissan decides to pull off a publicity stunt by making a big show of turning e-racers into actual race car drivers, Jann gets his shot, and eventually makes the most of it, with the help of a racetrack veteran (David Harbour) with a sad past.
Gran Turismo implies it’s going to be an Air/Blackberry/Flamin’ Hot-scenario story in which the hero is a marketing stooge, but that Nissan stooge (Orlando Bloom) turns out to be a minor part of the story, albeit one who switches from hero to villain multiple times.
The movie starts out with Jann part of a competitive training camp, where one of the other prospects (played by actual race car driver Emelia Hartford) bears such a striking resemblance to Lady Gaga that it’s distracting. He ends up on a real racing circuit, where the veteran racers very much look down on the video game kid.
The film is clearly aiming to capitalize on the popularity of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which has helped make F1 racing popular among the sort of Americans who would never in a million years watch NASCAR. It also leads up to a third act staging of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which was also the setting for the climax of Ford vs. Ferrari.
Gran Turismo Product Placement
The film was directed by Neill Blomkamp, the South African director who made the acclaimed debut District 9, both have mostly treaded since; one of his movies, Chappie, was more memorable as a Twitter meme than as a movie. His direction mostly holds its own, but the film’s weaknesses are at the level of the screenplay, which includes just about every sports movie cliche that has ever existed or ever could exist.
If you’ve seen a sports movie, you’ve seen almost everything that happens here. There’s an underdog, who no one believes in, including his parents, his teammates, or his coach, and he has to prove them wrong. There’s a coach character, with a secret, tragic backstory. There are many, many montages. There’s an understated romance with a classmate (Maeve Courtier-Lilley). And yes, there’s an evil and sadistic, Cobra Kai-like racing team.
Beyond that, Gran Turismo has the most intrusive product placement of any film in recent memory. The whole thing feels like one long commercial for Nissan and Sony, with the products of both arguably more important as characters than any of the people.
I thought those emails from the Sony hack, in which Daniel Craig scoffed at the notion that James Bond would ever use a Sony smartphone, were the end of characters in Sony movies needing to use such substandard devices, but they’re back in Gran Turismo. And when Jann gives Jack a gift, it’s… a Sony Walkman mp3 player, to replace his ancient Walkman cassette player.
It’s also very fictionalized. Jann was not the first GT player to become a real driver, nor did his path go the same direction. In fact, it took a lot longer, and Jack Salter was not a real person. Also, the film heavily implies that he won a certain race, when in fact he finished third, which is why they keep using the phrase “reach the podium” instead of “win.” (Last year’s The Swimmers did the same thing, implying that its protagonist won an Olympic gold medal when it was in fact a preliminary heat.)
Wanted: The Escape Of Carlos Ghosn
Besides, as compelling as Jann’s story is, it’s far from the story involving Nissan from the last ten years that I’m most interested in seeing. That would be the saga of Carlos Ghosn, who for several years was the celebrated CEO of that car company, before he fell out of favor, faced a criminal indictment, and had himself smuggled out of Japan in an instrument case.
Luckily, there is a new four-part documentary about exactly that, which debuted the exact same week as Gran Turismo. It’s called Wanted: The Escape Of Carlos Ghosn, which comes to Apple TV+ Friday (and it happens to come from the producers of Formula 1: Ride to Survive).
The documentary mostly follows the format of the earlier book: We’re walked through Ghosn’s rise, in which he became an internationally known executive who presided over an alliance of Renault and Nissan. He ran into opposition and resistance from various quarters of both companies, who especially resented Ghosn’s compensation package.
Eventually, Ghosn was charged with crimes in Japan, and while out on the equivalent of bail, he had himself smuggled out of Japan in an instrument case and has spent the last three and a half years in his home nation of Lebanon.
The filmmakers interview Ghosn himself, as well as his wife and various people involved in different levels of the case. It paints an intriguing and complex picture of what happened, but it seems equally true that enemies were conspiring against Ghosn, and also that he probably committed financial improprieties. But he was also subjected to inhumane conditions, and probably could not have gotten a fair trial in Japan.
We also hear from the ex-Green Beret and his son who masterminded the escape and were later arrested; they express disappointment that Ghosn never reached out to help them.
It’s one of the wildest business stories of the last 25 years, and the Wanted documentary absolutely does it justice.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.