Former President of the FIA (governing body for a range of motorsport series, including F1, and the main body for representing the interests of motorists) Max Mosley died on 23rd May this year. This was long after completion of the documentary Mosley: It’s Complicated, from producer and director Michael Shevloff (creator of the outstanding Michael Fassbender-narrated 1: Life on the Limit). As such, the timing of this work must be seen as a coincidence. It is understood, however, that Mosley had been suffering from cancer from some time, so it is possible that his awareness that he was nearing the end of his life played some role in prompting this film – which is told very much from Max’s perspective.
To the public Max Mosley is best known for one of two things: first, his father, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s; second, his legal battle with News International, owner of The News of the World, after they published photos of him at a sex party – one they deemed to have been “Nazi-themed”. For followers of Formula One, Mosley is best known for his time at the FIA (after a spell as a team owner), where his unofficial partnership with Bernie Ecclestone revolutionised both safety and the distribution of finances in the sport. To the wider car industry, he is best known for his Euro NCAP initiative, which has driven improvements in road safety by evaluating the safety of car manufacturers’ products through crash testing, and a published rating.
Shevloff’s film is subtitled in some markets as “It’s Complicated”, and it is not difficult to see why, with Max such a controversial figure. The story picks up near the end of his time at the FIA, at the 2008 Monaco Grand Prix. There is an immediate heavy focus on his work on road safety, with an emphasis on India, where 2.6 million people a year were being injured or killed before the enacting of the improvements he pushed through. Road and car safety will be a theme we return to periodically, rather than something confined to the start of the film, but such a soft opening did lead to the concern that this would become hagiography.
Then, however, we move straight to Max – who gives a lot of time to one-on-one interviews from his UK home – as he discusses his parents. The film does not shy away from Oswald being a fascist and, in fact, later, we will return to Max’s regrets that he was so under the spell of his father as a young man. His complicated, confused emotions when talking of his father is fascinating, while his memories of his mother are far warmer, despite archive footage which suggests a haughty, distant character – though she is discussing her imprisonment in Holloway, to be fair. Max is engaging in discussing his need to move away from them, and to become his own person, qualifying as a barrister in the 1960s
Mosley describes his early infatuation with motorsport, his entry to the industry, and his eventual rise, first to the role of team owner and, finally, to head of the sport’s sanctioning body. We’ll say little more about this, as the interest is to be found in the journey. It is worth restating, however, the importance of safety to Max’s psyche, and the scenes of his revisiting footage of the death of his team’s driver, Roger Williamson in 1973, at Zandvoort, is genuinely moving (though we’d counsel against anyone looking up video of this wholly distressing and tragic episode).
Max looks frail during the present day footage, but he remained sharp to the end, with a good memory of events and, as the work continues, no desire to paint over his flaws – where he considers them of any of our business. Both Max and Bernie – also featured heavily – are upfront about their strategy to control the sport, and the often amoral actions they took to divide and conquer, and to undermine then-motorsport head Jean Marie-Balestre, such as getting drivers not to attend the mandatory pre-race briefings, then encouraging them not to pay any fines levied as punishment. They work on creating an alternative governing body – which they admit was a bluff – and we see a young Max dealing with French press fluently. The small nit-pick here is that there are several talking heads, but if you miss who any of these people are, you are never told again. It is a fascinating piece of storytelling, however, with such an air of candidness, given that it is clearly an authorised biography: clearly it has the full cooperation of Mosley, but it is not shying away from his flaws. Only the constant returns to his road safety initiative marks this out as a portrait commissioned on behalf of someone looking to cement a positive legacy.
With the death of his father at the end of 1980, the film skips lightly over Max’s short political career from 1981 to 85 – culminating in his return to motorsport. We do learn, however, that his flirtation with mainstream politics was something he could contemplate only once his controversial parent was gone. There is almost a sense of relief that it was all over. The next section of the film deals with his FIA work. He saw drivers getting complacent in the early-90s, as deaths were rare. With discussion of Imola, and the horrific run of accidents (two of them fatal) that took place in 1994, the late Charlie Whiting, race director, contributes to discuss how cars were getting faster, without the racetracks evolving to deal with this. The film’s deal seems to be that Mosley will contribute candidly, not whitewashing himself, but the film continues to focus on his chief area of interest – safety. The death of Senna clearly affects him: less the loss of the man, and more the sadness of its avoidability. Out of this, Max works with David Ward to create Euro NCAP – we learn around 600,000 people are alive, or having escaped serious injury today because of this work, as differing safety standards for the same car internationally were unified.
Though we touch on the various sporting scandals Max found himself dealing with in Formula One in his final term of office, the film really elevates in the final half an hour with the News of the World scandal. “F1 Boss has sick Nazi-themed orgy with five hookers” was their headline. Here is where his stubbornness and slightly technocratic nature comes to the fore, as without emotion at all he tells the interviewer he showed this headline to his wife, and it is this lack of self-awareness that makes the final section of Mosley utterly riveting.
Max’s argument is that his privacy was breached, and that is a compelling one: but his very lawyerly response that it was not in public interest – and hence should have been illegal to publish – demonstrates a profound lack of foresight as to the toll taking on this battle would be likely to take on his family. To the end of his life the principle itself was more important to him than the cost of fighting for that principle. This battle led to moves to remove Mosley from the FIA, and prompted Ecclestone’s to triangulate the friendship and the requests of his sponsors. The film users Adam Parr – former CEO of the Williams F1 Team – a lot to argue the privacy angle, and to suggest that there was no clamour from the teams for Mosley’s head. Hurt by Ecclestone’s lack of support, Max states that fighting his corner, even if losing, was more important that avoiding the fight in the first place. Bernie is well represented here, and allows him to relay his regret for not supporting his friend.
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The last portion of the work is about the court battle. The argument that it was “Nazi-themed” was used as defence for the public interest angle, and was destroyed by testimony from participants. It raises interesting questions – this was a private party, and demonstrably not in public interest, but to prove the point came at such a cost to lead to genuine questioning from the viewer as to whether it had been worth it. Max talks about the devasting effects on his family. Hugh Grant makes an appearance, and clearly regarded Max as a friend, contextualising Max’s fight as part of the challenge to the whole behaviour of the Murdoch papers, amongst others. This propels the film into a different stratosphere – one focusing on the history of our recent times, and the national discourse around privacy and media standards.
Mosley is a polemic. That said, it is persuasive stuff, in terms of challenging prevailing opinions on Max. It clearly isn’t about the personal choices, though the fight may not have been fully worth it for his family. It is possible that the viewer will end up not truly liking Max Mosley – in particular his insensitivity to his family’s feelings – but it is likely that there will be a profound respect for the choice he made to fight, even where we might not agree with that choice.
Mosley: It’s Complicated is released in UK cinemas on 9th July, and on Digital Download, DVD and Blu-ray on 19th July from Dazzler Media.