15 May 2024

Review: Jackie Stewart

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 15 May 2024

Formula 1 racing is undoubtedly exciting, but not particularly dramatic.

There are people driving at incredible speeds, often inches away from each other, for endless hours. There’s the constant threat of sudden death at every bend in the road.   

But it’s also incredibly repetitive and exhausting. It takes a special skill to turn that into a gripping movie.

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart Photo: Supplied

Which is what the documentary Senna was, Asif Kapadia’s brilliant account of Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna and his less volatile nemesis Alain Prost.  

Senna won the World Championship three times. But so did another driver, Jackie Stewart, the subject of a documentary of the same name.

But unlike Senna, Jackie Stewart falls down in the story department. 

I suspect director Patrick Mark was so smitten by the famous Flying Scot he didn’t realise he needed one until it was too late.

Sir Jackie is one of the best-loved people in motor sports, from his early successes in the mid Sixties to now, where he’s regularly mobbed by autograph-hunters at the world’s top Formula 1 events.

The documentary opens on a picturesque village in Scotland where Stewart grew up. He freely admits he didn’t exactly bowl over his teachers at school. 

In fact, he was regularly bottom of the class – though back then the concept of learning disabilities was pretty much unknown. They just called him “stupid”, which he clearly wasn’t.

He worked at the family garage, then one day he was given his big break - a trial run at a local car race.  

And then – it really did seem to happen this quickly – he was on the Formula 1 circuit, he was winning regularly, he shortly became one of the most famous people in the country.

It didn’t hurt that this was at the height of the Swinging ‘60s.  

Where his racing rivals Stirling Moss and Graham Hill were establishment types, hanging out with the likes of Princess Margaret, the long-haired Stewart was clearly part of the Mod generation.

Adding to his glamour – as if he needed to – was his none-more-60s wife Helen. 

She looked like the girlfriend of every pop star of the time – long, straight blonde hair, a bit posh, staggeringly beautiful and fiercely loyal to Stewart.

So if this was how Stewart started out – and all this happens in the first ten minutes of the film Jackie Stewart – then where’s the drama?

The short answer is “not in this film”.  Add to this the fact that Stewart was, and is, universally loved in a sport with more than its fair share of egomaniacs, and you can see the dramatic possibilities are cut down considerably.

The one dramatic thing that happened all too often was sudden death. 

Back in the bad old days of Formula 1, a crash was often fatal.  

Stewart seems remarkably matter of fact about that threat – though he also went to far more trouble to reduce risks than many of his rivals.  But he admitted it was his family who suffered.

The one thing that distinguishes Stewart’s story from that of Ayrton Senna of course is he didn’t die.

He survived, where most of his colleagues didn’t. There’s no-one left who went through what he did.  So that leaves the film scrabbling for a dramatic hook.

I won’t spoil it by revealing Stewart’s secret, other than to say it’s a bit of an anticlimax.  

I wish I could say that one of Britain’s greatest sporting figures got the film he deserved.  One for fans of Formula 1, rather than for fans of a good story well told, I’m afraid.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)