When I heard that Audi had commissioned NFL Films to document its 2008 24 Hours of LeMans effort, I smiled like an idiot for three days, remembering the episodes of NFL Films Presents I’d watched as a kid. The slow motion and intense music always seemed to lend a monumental seriousness to a sport more commonly associated with beer and chicken wings.
The 24 Hours of LeMans is arguably the single most important auto race in the world. Founded in 1923, this grueling endurance race has helped to establish the reputations of Porsche, Bentley, Ferrari and Jaguar.
Since 2000, Audi has been making its own case as the most dominant manufacturer in the Circuit de la Sarthe’s long history with their R8 and R10 LMP1 cars. An Audi has won at LeMans every year since 2000, with the exception of 2003 when Audi did not compete, allowing corporate sibling Bentley to take the overall win in their Speed 8 (a car that bore many technical similarities to the Audi R8).
Truth in 24 begins with an introduction to LeMans. Jason Statham’s narration guides the viewer through a brief history of the most grueling motorsports event on tarmac. In a few short moments, the gravity of the race is made abundantly clear to even the complete racing novice.
After a short opening sequence, aficionados may be left wanting more archival footage and greater depth. It’s at this point that you begin to get the sense that Truth in 24 will provide little opportunity for the racing obsessed in the room to offer their invaluable insights to anyone within earshot.
Directors Keith Cossrow and Bennett Viseltear are not racing wonks. In fact, prior to filming neither knew much about auto racing at all. Even as an ardent car guy I can say that their lack of knowledge made for a better movie. The film has few serious historical or technical geek-out moments, and that’s the secret behind its excellent pacing and coherency. Now, would I like to see the uncut footage? Of course I would, but I’m not about to subject my fiancé to it.
The film progresses into a second brief history lesson as Statham acquaints the viewer with Audi’s incredible run at LeMans beginning with the 2000 debut of their R8. We quickly move on to the introduction of the Audi R10 TDI and its continuation of Audi’s mastery over endurance racing. But, the story culminates with Peugeot’s 2007 introduction of the 908 HDi FAP and that car’s rise to dominance in 2008. The viewer is right there at the 12 Hours of Sebring as the Audi Sport team comes to the slow realization that after years of preeminence, they are now by all accounts the underdog.
Truth in 24 really begins to find its stride when the viewer is returned to LeMans. Cossrow and Viseltear continue to build tension even as festive pre-race celebrations jump joyfully across screen. The scope of the race weekend is communicated through extensive panoramas of the ecstatic spectators who flood the city of LeMans. We’re also further acquainted with the drivers, especially Tom Kristenson and Allan McNish who takes us through an emphatic first-person account of one lap in the R10.
When race day finally arrives we’re treated to a race experience you can’t get by watching the race on TV, or even by attending the race in person. It’s in the pits that this race is won and lost; and we become intimately acquainted with the engineers and crew that have won it more than any other group in recent history. The race footage is grand, but ultimately it is secondary to the view from inside the pits. We’ve seen LeMans in other films, but only in this one are we granted access to the real human drama of the event.
It’s an experience you don’t get from other racing films. Steve McQueen’s LeMans contains some of the best racing footage ever shot but the second-rate plot keeps it from really engaging those who don’t live to hear a 917 on the Mulsanne.
The odd thing about Truth in 24 is that the majority of people who will see it already know how it ends, and those who don’t know the ending are unlikely to be fans of sports car endurance racing. In a lesser film, these points could conspire to create an incoherent mash-up between a dramatic plotline and a racing documentary. By embracing and focusing on the human drama, Truth in 24 tells a story that is every bit as relevant to fans of curling as it is to fans of auto-racing.
Truth in 24 is currently available as a free download on itunes.