Untold: The Race of the Century 2022 Movie Review |
February 4, 2023

Untold: The Race of the Century 2022 Movie Review

Untold: The Race of the Century
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Untold: The Race of the Century 2022 Movie Review

The America’s Cup is the premier event in the world of competitive yachting, but it’s more than that; it’s also the oldest still-operating international competition in any sport. It’s a simple format: two countries, two boats; one defending, and one challenging. The first boat to win four races wins the America’s Cup. For the first 132 years of the competition, no one beat the United States–the longest winning streak in the history of sports. Then came the 1983 race, and a plucky upstart team from Australia re-charted the course of yachting history.

Newport, Rhode Island was the center of the yachting universe, and it was preposterous to think that that would ever change. For decades, the New York Yacht Club–which kept Newport as its home racing venue–had successfully defended the America’s Cup against all comers, rarely facing a credible threat of losing it. The club was American old money at its finest… ”Vanderbilts and Roosevelts,” with immaculate boats, immaculate style, and a sense that they simply could not be beaten. Heading into the 1983 competition, they had a star at the helm, too–American captain Dennis Conner, a brilliant sailor preternaturally focused on winning. “I won 38 straight races,” Conner recalls. “I was the best sailor in the world. I was slaughtering them.”

If anyone was going to knock the Americans off their perch, it wasn’t going to be some plucky upstarts from the other side of the globe. Or, at least, that’s what everyone thought.

John Bertrand had sailing in his blood–his great-grandfather had worked on the design of an America’s Cup boat, and he sailed from a very early age. But he couldn’t beat Dennis Conner, so he decided to go “behind enemy lines”, enrolling at MIT and studying American sailing secrets. To wage a successful challenge, though, he’d need money, and lots of it. Enter Alan Bond, a larger-than-life financier who made headlines for his flashy deals (and later, for his financial crimes.) With Bond’s deep pockets behind him, Bertrand assembled a crew, picking people he thought had both the intellect and the confidence to overcome the Americans’ many advantages.

His most important choice, however, was who was going to design his yacht.

The comparison of the Australians’ ship design versus the Americans’ is something worthy of Rocky IV, but in this case, it’s the Americans playing the role of Ivan Drago, the lab-built supersoldier. Dennis Conner’s ship was built off military technology, with the assistance of some of the top minds at the Department of Defense. The Australians? They only had Ben Lexcen, a barefoot eccentric with only three years of formal education to his name, but a genius eye for ship design.

“He was the Leonardo Da Vinci of Australia,” Bertrand recalls.

Lexcen became obsessed with “getting an extra one-hundredth of a knot” out of his boat design, finally hitting on a radical solution, a so-called “winged keel,” a change in keel design so unusual that one team member compared it to designing “a new car with its wheels on the roof,” but acknowledging that “if we were going to finally defeat the Americans, we were going to have to do something radical.”

In qualifying races, the keel was hidden from public view and kept under round-the-clock guard to protect the design innovation, something that became more necessary as the Aussie rang up an incredible record, winning 47 out of 55 races. The public (and competitors’) obsession with the mysterious design led to a hilarious incident where Lexcen “accidentally” left an incorrect sketch of his design on the photocopier at a copy shop, leading to that fake quickly being disseminated all over Newport. “We were either going to look like heroes or idiots,” one Australian team member recalls.

Of course, the prize wasn’t just the Cup, but the right to host the race, and the threat of Newport losing its quadrennial cash cow drew swift reactions from the American side. The New York Yacht Club lobbied to have the Australia II banned, arguing that Lexcen couldn’t have designed it himself, and must’ve had help from Dutch engineers in violation of the competition rules. Their attempts failed, and the race was on.

The back third of Race of the Century follows the actual competition between Conner’s Liberty and Bertrand’s Australia II, and it’s thrilling even if you know the eventual result. Some early mechanical failures placed the Aussies in a deep hole, but as they rallied back, their entire country rallied behind them, with hundreds of thousands watching back home and the Prime Minister openly cheering them on. Nearly 40 years later, it’s clear that the emotions haven’t faded; both the thrill of winning for Bertrand, and the pain of losing for Conner.

Untold: The Race of the Century 2022 Movie Review