Frank Capua (Paul Newman) is a top American racing driver who has just won his latest victory so now that the excitement has died down and he has been suitably refreshed with alcohol, he is wandering the streets looking for a little entertainment before he finally drops off to sleep. To that end, sporting a fireman's helmet he has picked up from somewhere along the way, he notices a lady (Joanne Woodward) in a car rental shop who is just about to close up for the night, and he starts goofing around to impress her. She does laugh, and when he goes in and gets to talking with her they find they are attracted to each other, which is not the effects of drink but a real connection that builds as she drives him off to a picturesque spot in the moonlight...
That was your trouble right there, the relationships in Winning were a dead loss to sit through when what you really wanted to watch were those racing sequences. It is those sections, very well photographed by Richard Moore, that ensured this had a high reputation among many car racing fans, taking its place in the era's trilogy of works on this subject to star three of the biggest stars who happened to be big fans of the sport themselves. First up was James Garner in Grand Prix, notable for its scenes at the track, then third was Steve McQueen in Le Mans, notable for its scenes at the track, and in the middle was this, notable for its... well, you get the idea, as far as drama went these tended to be duds.
It's not as if they featured poor acting or indeed actors who were bad at their craft, it's just that the vehicle action overpowered the rest of it and any attempt at making us invested in the lives of the men who sat in the cockpits. Winning was perhaps the worst of the lot since it was bolstered by real couple Newman and Woodward performing fake couple's problems, as once Capua and Woodward's Elora have been married (about five nanoseconds after meeting one another it seems) they hit the rocks with deadening predictability when a rival driver, Erding played by smoothie Robert Wagner, threatens to send their supposedly happy union crashing down to the ground in a mess of bad tempers and recriminations.
What was potentially interesting was that Capua wasn't the instigator of this marital crisis, for he was the one who stumbled in on Elora and Erding in bed together in a motel room, leaving the woman as the self-admitted letdown in their relationship, wondering if this marriage thing is really for her. Not the usual path such melodrama ventures down, and not one that this film did very much with, preferring to concentrate on what this does to Capua's father figure tutelage of Elora's son from her previous marriage, the sixteen-year-old Charley (Richard Thomas, before the impending decade made him a household name on television in The Waltons). Frank really gets on with the kid, but it doesn't give rise to much to captivate as you could genuinely perceive the television movie roots of the project.
Meaning, there was a TV movie arrangement to the plot where it was only in the driving sequences, and not all of them were racing sequences, that this sprang to life. For some this was enough, and there remains a cult following for Winning to this day if only for the footage of the 1968 Indianapolis 500 that the crew filmed at (though they also used footage of a 1966 accident to make their movie more exciting when you saw what was at stake). For the most part, these parts were seamlessly edited into the business with the actors acting, and presented with such vividness that you can get a very good impression of what it would have been like to attend such an event in the late sixties, as it's not simply the track we see but the behind the scenes activity and the spectators basking in the sunshine and appreciating the contest. You still had to wait about an hour and a half for this to get up to a level that wasn't listlessly footling, and that was probably too long for most potential viewers, but when this put pedal to metal it made you see the film it might have been and forget about the ho-hum couples yarn it was. Music by Dave Grusin, which isn't bad either in its very late sixties way.