commentary: 30th anniversary of the contemporary classic, ‘days of thunder’

It seemed as though Tony Scott put his blockbuster hat back on when he directed arguably the greatest film about racing cars, Days of Thunder. The same critics who weren’t fond of Scott’s work with Top Gun consider Thunder to be the imaginary sequel to it. They’d foolishly argue that instead of putting Cruise in a fighter jet, they put him in a stock-car. That’s a ridiculous notion and absurd gesture for anyone who claims such nonsense. Days of Thunder can serve as master class on screenwriting and storytelling. It’s written by Robert Towne, the mastermind behind Chinatown (1974). Thunder unfolds perfectly in terms of story beats, overcoming obstacles, act breaks, the dark night of the soul, an all is lost moment, and a protagonist achieving his overall objective in a climactic finale followed by a conclusion that matches the opposite image of the film’s opening sequence where everything comes full-circle.

Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) Paramount Pictures, 1990

Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) is the film’s hero who contains flaws. He’s arrogant, for starters, in an epic wide-shot of his characters introduction to the story when he rides onto the race track on his Harley Davidson, to drive several laps around the racetrack in a borrowed stock car that belongs to last years Daytona 500 champion, Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker, Cliffhanger). Rowdy Burns’ character was written with an advanced screenwriting technique known as the false opponent-ally. We’re led to believe that he is Cole’s rival throughout the film, until we realize that the car Cole runs test laps with, ends up being the one Rowdy lends him to win the Winston Cup at Daytona, due to the fact that he can’t participate, since they were involved in a fiery crash, during the ‘all is lost moment’ of the plot (another advanced screenwriting technique) which sent Cole and Rowdy into the hospital with concussions. At this juncture of the story, the arrogant Cole is now filled with fear and doubt due to the near death experience he had out on the racetrack from the crash in conjunction with the concussions he was afflicted with, after he seeks the help and love of Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) to regain the courage necessary to live and to race again. The film also employs the technique known as the false ally in Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), a Chevrolet dealership tycoon who initially recruits Cole to drive for his race team in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, only to turn the tables on Cole by having him ultimately compete against the real enemy, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), Tim’s second driver from a different race team. Even though in the modern-day it’s authorized for one man to own multiple cars on the racetrack and his driver’s to assist each other during races. During the making of Thunder, this tactic was deemed as controversial and served as major twist in the plot. Cole’s character constantly overcomes obstacles throughout the story, from convincing his crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to let him race, to persuading his Doctor, Claire, to see him romantically. Each scene is carefully crafted with the objectives the character’s attempt to overcome in one another and remains a true testament on how to structure a story.

Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) Paramount Pictures, 1990

Combine this masterful storytelling with the most recognizable musical score in cinema history, composed by Hans Zimmer (True Romance, The Fan) and top notch directing by Tony Scott, resulting in a contemporary classic film. Tony Scott created detailed storyboard drawings every morning based upon their shooting schedule for that day, demonstrating his artistic abilities and an authentic vision for each frame of his film. The high octane and pulsating directing of Top Gun was more than twofold on Thunder. Whether you’re like the Midwest kid from Kansas who falls asleep to this movie as his nightcap and wakes up to it in the morning to start his day, or if you’re like the avid NASCAR fan who thinks this film is outdated and didn’t do anything for the value of the sport, Days of Thunder is one of the most popular films in American history because it’s a great story. If aliens came down from outer space and wanted to know what cinema was, I would confidently hand over a copy of Days of Thunder in 4k and tell them to sit down and get ready to wiggle their toes on a mink rug because what they’re about to witness is the perfect film to represent what American movies are all about. Even though a lot has changed in the world of NASCAR since 1990, Days of Thunder still hold it’s own as a contemporary classic.

Paramount Pictures, 1990

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