This past Thursday I was lucky enough to attend the press screening for “Weekend Of A Champion,” a recently restored, Roman Polanksi produced documentary from 1971 that follows Formula One legend Sir Jackie Stewart – then just a lowly Mr. – as he prepares for and eventually wins the Monaco Grand Prix.
If you’re already saying to yourself, “Hey Greenberg, just shut up and tell me if I should see it,” let me save you some time. This movie is definitely worth watching, but not necessarily at the theatre.
The first person racing scenes stun, the sound quality is impressive for being nearly 40 years old and there are even some big laughs, but there’s nothing about “Champion” that demands being watched on the big screen. In fact, the opposite is true: You’re going to want to rewind a few times and maybe even turn on closed captioning, because Stewart’s Scottish occasionally renders his speech incomprehensible. Best to wait until it’s on Netflix in a few months rather than track down the local art house theater and pay ten bucks for a thimble of popcorn that’s been sprinkled with cinnamon.
Back to the film – Its virtues are all essentially summed up in one scene, in which Stewart drives Polanski through the undulating Monaco racetrack, narrating his thought process as he makes each turn and accelerates down every relatively-straightaway. By the time he’s through enumerating the various gear shifts, angles and break patterns that enter into his calculus, its readily apparent that at least in Formula One, the prevailing anti-Nascar wisdom of “driving is not a sport,” couldn’t be more off base. Whereas a rainy day in baseball means a King Of Queens rerun, a rainy day at the Monaco Raceway – particularly with 1971 safety standards – could and often did mean instant death. This macabre tension boils just below the surface as Stewart and Polanski speed down the track, cracking jokes like the best buddies they are, their long 70’s locks blowing in the wind.
Anyway, if it wasn’t clear at the beginning of the film, by the end it’s pretty obvious why Jackie Stewart is a worthy subject for a documentary. In a Cinderella story worthy of Bill Murray, he was just an apprentice his family’s auto shop until one morning, a rich customer asked him to race one of his cars in a local event. “Since that day,” recalls Jackie, “my life changed completely.” Sir Stewart maintains that genuine, local boy charm throughout the duration, his sheer enthusiasm for the sport enough to engage even a jaded Yankee like myself. I should also probably mention that the man is a legitimate hero. After seeing far too many of his friends, competitors and proteges die on the race track, he spearheaded efforts to improve safety measures and cut down on the sports’ unnecessary and gruesome toll. Thanks to his endeavors, these two guys, and countless others have been able to get up and walk out of crashes that years ago would have been sure fatalities.
Bottom Line: I think we can all agree that taking the guilt out of watching a fiery car wreck is an act worthy of knighthood, if not World Presidency. Give an all time sports great his due and check out “Weekend Of A Champion.”