It’s a fairly safe bet that over 90% of people reading this will be familiar with, if not having directly played, the Grand Theft Auto game series. Just about everyone who’s familiar with the title will also be familiar with the various controversies surround the series and other productions by the studio behind it, Rockstar Games. Another name that was extremely familiar to gamers or any media sponge in the 2000’s, although it has fallen out of regular use since then, was Jack Thompson. Thompson was a legal activist who specialized in removing what he viewed as ‘obscenities’ from the media. The Gamechangers is a BBC docudrama following the events of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ development and release, and Jack Thompson‘s subsequent attempts to challenge it in court.
The Gamechangers is based on a book entitled Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto written by David Kushner. When working on the book, Kushner reached out to Rockstar a number of times in an attempt to delve deeper into the studios habits and the controversy surrounding San Andreas. At the time, Kushner was held back by Rockstar’s professional reclusiveness and left unable to fact check a number of things. In The Gamechangers, this lack of research is painfully obvious. The fact that this is an unauthorized production based on an unauthorized book is felt in almost every scene and the inaccuracies should be extremely obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of events at the game’s release. It’s not just on behalf of Sam Houser‘s (Daniel Radcliffe) team that the inaccuracies are myriad either, Jack Thompson‘s (Bill Paxton) story is also quite poorly portrayed.
The story is fairly heavily biased in favour of painting Houser as an edgy visionary while showing up Thompson as a religious nutjob. Some attempts are made to balance things out, with a few scenes depicting Houser as running Rockstar with something of an iron fist and others displaying the abuse and vandalism directed at Thompson’s family and property, but overall it never really evens out the scales. The script and direction for Houser seems to have been based entirely on the popular reception given to Jesse Eisenberg for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. At numerous points in the script, Houser credits himself with the creation of a number of gaming features that existed long before Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas existed. Not only are these statements untrue, but they also undermine the fact that Grand Theft Auto has it’s own features that make it unique.
Likewise, Thompson is written as being some sort of bumbling idiot who just managed to walk his way into law. I’m certainly no fan of Jack Thompson, but this is inaccurate and unfair. In reality, Thompson was a charismatic public speaker. Another feature of the on-screen Thompson is that he puts his pursuit above the well-being and preferences of his family. Again this is untrue, Thompson frequently consulted his family about the effect his work was having, in particular about speeches at his son’s school. Regardless of how I feel about his personal opinions, displaying Thompson in this fashion is disingenuous and does a disservice to the people’s he’s fought and won legal battles against.
It’s very hard to gauge the quality of Radcliffe or Paxton’s performances given the script they’ve had to work with here. Some of Radcliffe‘s lines are truly “Tighten up the graphics on level 3” in terms of cringeworthiness. A scene in which a number of Rockstar developers patrol the streets of Los Angeles while on a research task and run into a few gang members comes totally out of left field and is completely laughable on its own, while also being totally out of tone with the rest of the movie. While I was prepared to forgive Gamechangers for having little accuracy in terms of game development, a lot of these events could have easily been checked even without Rockstar’s involvement. On top of the inaccurate script for this docudrama, which plays loose with the ‘docu-‘ segment of it’s genre, the footage and pacing are also poorly put together. There’s little indication of the passage of time between scenes, a huge amount of emphasis is put on anecdotal events that have almost no bearing on the story and generally the camera work and cuts between scenes feel extremely clunky, breaking the little flow the story had.
I really wanted to enjoy this. I really did. I’d been following the production for months before its release and all signs were positive… Up to a point. At first production was moving along quickly and smoothly. The BBC were involved so there was a certain level of quality to be expected. There were two great actors in the lead roles; Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton, both of whom have almost spotless performance histories. The filming and post production all seemed to come off without a hitch. Unfortunately, shortly before the original airing date, it came out that Rockstar weren’t happy about the production and would in fact be suing the BBC over it. That it managed to air at all is nearly a miracle, but not quite a good one. Many Rockstar and DMA Design employees were vocal on Twitter about their disappointment with the production. However, to give it some credit, there are two scenes worthy of admiration. One follows Devin Moore on his escape from a police precinct during which he murders three police officers. This is the event that kicked off a large amount of the controversy and is shot from the same point of view as is featured in the Grand Theft Auto games. The other scene is the closing moment of the movie wherein Houser finishes up a phonecall, casually walks out of the Rockstar building and finally hijacks a car. The camera for the last scene slowly sways back into the Grand Theft Auto point-of-view. It may only be small praise, but these scenes are really quite good to the point where it seems they could’ve been done by a totally different crew to the rest of the movie.
Poorly put together and factually vacant mess.