What makes the experience of this well directed, well shot and well scripted film achieve the heights of philosophy and emotion is that Hopkins makes friends everywhere he goes, with an easy charm that comes from his ability to connect to the core of every human being he meets, however different they may be, by treating them as family from the word go.
With a succession of equally accessible supporting actors ranging from a transvestite motel clerk, Tina, who helps him clear customs, and Fernando the used car dealer who lets him repair his bike in the dealership garage (along with tuning up all the cars in the lot) to the Native American who gives him a charm for his prostate and Ada the older but still lively owner of a car dump in the desert who hosts him overnight in her bed, this uplifting movie is a perfect evocation of what we all know or should know in our souls, which is that we are indeed family, members of the family of man, and that that cliche holds the essential truth of all philosophies and religions in one vessel, the chalice of love for your fellow man.
In the hands of a lesser actor and director this simple theme wouldn’t amount to much in terms of story, since all that happens in the 127 minutes it will hold your attention at every moment is that aging New Zealander and bike engineering wiz Hopkins, ailing with a dicky heart and not a lot of stamina, embarks on a delusional bid to get the equally middle aged 1920 motorbike he loves tinkering with in his garage in a suburb far far down under to America, aiming to win the speed record for that particular machine ie run it at over 200 mph at the serious risk of his life and limb.
This danger is something which he ignores completely and, with his matchless charm and common touch, persuades everyone else he comes into contact with to ignore also – even the men whose job it is to see that entrants who compete in the official timing races are competent and their machines well equipped for the speed runs with such things as parachutes and efficient brakes, which Hopkins and his beloved bike sorely lack.
The gentle saga of how he gets to America, charms everyone he meets into helping him, and is finally allowed to compete despite never even having heard that he had to fill in forms and apply months before the test runs, is one of the finer pieces of laid back story telling in cinema history.
It is doubly satisfying because Hopkins’ acting tour-de-force is complemented by a director who knows how to portray both character and context with both a well written script and a fine feeling for telling us all we need to know without wasting a moment in exaggeration or repetition, and because the theme is so uplifting – that someone who has the goodwill and understanding of a saint can and will sooth and win over people everywhere he goes.
Teaching as it pleases, this is one of those rare principled movies that inspires as it entertains, and at every showing is slowly but surely making the world a better place. Pleasing has never been a problem. The film immediate became the highest grossing movie in New Zealand and won over critics and audiences worldwide. Why was it so well done? It is based on a true story about the Invercargill, New Zealand speed bike racer Burt Munro which the director had already treated in a documentary, and which held his attention for twenty years. Moreover, as Anthony Hopkins has explained it was a breeze for him to play Burt Munro because his philosophy of life was much the same as the hero’s.