Dana Brown brings surfing film kineticism to the auto racing world in “Dust to Glory,” a kickass action docu that rams the viewer into the midst of the punishing Baja 1000 race. With its exceptional multicamera coverage and dynamic editing, pic provides an amazing ride across the dusty roads and stunningly varied terrain of what could be the world’s most demanding vehicle race, with only a couple of tempo-reducing digressions and a late-stages tone of congratulatory back-slapping at all detracting from the excitement. The NASCAR crowd should eat this up, but the visceral impact is augmented by enough involving personal stories to give this April 1 IFC Films release a shot at a wider audience.
The son of “The Endless Summer” helmer Bruce Brown, Dana Brown scored a surfing classic of his own with “Step Into Liquid” in 2003. Here he turns his many lenses (more than 50) on an annual event that was launched in 1967, is open to anyone (professional and amateur alike), features vehicles worth from $10,000 to $2 million and takes place on the perilous roads, trails, back country dirt and beaches of Baja California.
Virtually without preliminaries, Brown revs up the engines, introducing participants and laying in info as he goes. A center, if there is one, is provided by pic’s co-producer Mike “Mouse” McCoy, a pro motorcyclist since the age of 14 who alarmingly intends to ride the entire race himself. (Vehicles normally have teams of drivers who switch off. The record time for this endurance test is 16 hours, but it can take twice that.)Motorcycles leave the Ensenada starting line first, followed at intervals by 250 or so vehicles boasting all manner of modifications (Porsche-powered and heavily hydrolicized dune buggies that resemble lunar landers, muscle trucks on steroids) or none at all (a whole category is devoted to pre-1983 VW bugs).
It’s immediately clear Brown intends to give “eat my dust” new cinematic meaning. Sensational p.o.v. shots from tiny cameras placed on bikes and cars create such a rapt sense of you-are-there involvement that you don’t want to blink, and the dynamic achieved by intercutting these shots with footage taken from other moving cars and swooping helicopters, hyped even further by Nathan Furst’s pulsating score, puts you on the edge of your seat.
It’s not a question of suspense; although winning is obviously important to top pros like Robbie Gordon (the most intense driver glimpsed here), the big achievement at Baja is simply finishing. For the viewer, the most absorbing element is the conditions under which the race is conducted. After the drivers have roared off the starting line just after dawn on Nov. 19, 2003, great amusement ensues when some are pulled over by the Mexican Highway Patrol; for the part of the race run on normal thoroughfares that have not been closed for the occasion, drivers are expected to observe the rules of the road, including speed limits.
Much scarier is the situation around small villages and the dozen check points to which all vehicles must report, as at these unbarricaded locations dozens or hundreds of locals crowd around to get a good look at the action; pic contains several heart-stopping shots of marauding bikes and cars barely missing kids and others. In fact, one spectator was killed during the 2003 event.
Worst physical obstacle, especially for the bikes, would appear to be the silt, or fine-grain sand that billows up to create zero visibility while eliminating traction. Then there’s the enveloping canopy of night, which makes getting lost in the desert a distinct possibility. Quite a few drivers are still out there at dawn the next morning, still hoping to finish before the 32-hour deadline.
Participants are profiled and interviewed sufficiently to provide a sense of them, but no more. There are numerous families, including three generations of McMillins, and JN Roberts (who won the first Baja in 1967) and son Jimmy; an all-female team; and 16-year-old Andy Stewart, who finishes sixth overall. Then there’s the affable presence of racing god Mario Andretti, who served as grand marshal.
Perhaps sensing that the pedal-to-the-metal pace couldn’t be sustained for more than 90 uninterrupted minutes, Brown makes a couple of pit stops of his own to introduce some eccentric characters connected to the race but has trouble getting fully back to speed thereafter. Concluding stretch rubs in we’re-just-living-our-dream bonhomie to an unnecessary degree; the drivers are guys whose performance-in-action speaks for them and whose love for what they do is implicit.
Technical quality is outstanding in all regards.