"You gotta think big to make it big." —Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen
Thinking big was Tom McEwen's specialty. A drag racer from southern California, he had the foresight to understand that corporate sponsorship was the wave of the future for his sport. Along with his rival and friend, Don Prudhomme, McEwen convinced Mattel to sponsor them as a drag racing team, where they became known as the Snake and the Mongoose, respectively. The duo made millions of dollars for Mattel, and Mattel, in turn, sold millions of Hot Wheels named after them. It changed the face of the sport.
Snake and Mongoose, a new film directed by Wayne Holloway and shot by talented cinematographer John Bailey, tells the story of how it all happened. It's an exciting and surprisingly sweet film, featuring archival footage of the races and two entertaining performances from the leads, Jesse Williams as Don and Richard Blake as Tom.
Starting in the late 1950s, we meet Tom and Don, both just coming out of high school. Tom has flash, style, and a way with the ladies. Don works in an auto body shop, painting cars, and goes steady with a sweet girl who later becomes his wife. Tom may have the more winning personality, but Don is described by an announcer in the archival footage as "the winningest driver in the history of drag racing." It takes some time for the rivalry to heat up, mainly because Don has no interest in pumping up some phony rivalry for publicity purposes.
The film follows them on their separate paths, until finally, one day, someone refers to them as "the Mongoose" and "the Snake," because in The Jungle Book, the mongoose eats the snake. The idea starts to gain some traction (at least in Tom's mind). Tom starts wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a mongoose. He encourages Don to play along; it can only mean more money for them both. Eventually, as the rivalry gets more and more publicity in the obsessive drag-racing press, Tom gets the idea to go to Mattel and make a pitch for corporate sponsorship. Noah Wyle plays Arthur Spear, the Mattel executive who's looking to make Hot Wheels as successful as Barbie, Mattel's current Queen of the Lot. Tom McEwen (in an awesome Seventies-era suit with Peter Pan collar) makes his pitch to Mr. Spear, who is obviously swayed by the power of McEwen's personality (and possibly aided by the enthusiasm of legendary Hot Wheels designer Larry Wood, who sits in on the meeting, sketching away). Spear signs on, and the Snake and Mongoose road show takes off. (Watch for a cameo appearance by the real Prudhomme and McEwen shortly thereafter.)
Snake and Mongoose is a film about the intersection of commerce and passion, the struggles of chasing a dream, and a friendship that spans decades. It succeeds on all of those levels. When the moments of sentiment come, and they do, they feel fully earned, rather than manipulated. Both lead actors are wonderful, and both seem to step directly out of the 1970s, with their big hair, sideburns, dangling cigarettes, and tight pants. Tom and Don are very different men, and the script is smart in how it shows these differences. When they fight (one fight in particular gets ugly), it feels real. Only people who know each other well fight like that.
The concerns of their wives (played by Ashley Hinshaw and Kim Shaw) are treated with respect. Tom's wife, who met him on the track back in the Fifties, changes her tune once she has kids to feed and a mostly absent husband. Her concerns about his absenteeism are well-founded and come to tragic fruition late in the film. Meanwhile, Don's wife wants kids, and he resists. His job is too dangerous. Snake and Mongoose is a three-dimensional and very human portrait of that world.
The races are not re-created for Snake and Mongoose; instead, archival footage is used, a bold choice on the part of the director, and a smart one. The cars are ridiculously cool, and the grainy footage showing the massive crowds, the party atmosphere, and the roaring engines crackles with palpable excitement.
Spanning, as it does, from 1958 to 1978, John Mott, production designer, worked wonders: the wood-paneled offices, the hotel decor, the dive bars, the trailers where the racers live while they're on the road, all eloquent of that era. In addition, the race cars featured in the production are a mix of original restored dragsters raced by Prudhomme and McEwen as well as exact replicas. And the soundtrack is sexy and fun, starting off with Elvis Presley's "Spinout" and moving through the next decade with ZZ Top and Blue Oyster Cult.
Snake and Mongoose ends in 1978. The sport has changed. The world has changed. Don and Tom have both, in their own ways, in their own lives, been through the wringer. Neither is practiced at talking about his feelings or anything like that, but by the end of the film, the director and the actors have all done their work and done it well, so that the final moments are very moving. Poignant, even.
Sheila says: Go see it.
Snake & Mongoose in Reno, Nevada, and opens nationwide on September 6.
Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. She writes film reviews and essays on actors for Roger Ebert, Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Film Noir of the Week, and The House Next Door. Her work has appeared in Salon.com and The Sewanee Review, where her essay about her father was featured in an Irish Literature issue. O'Malley writes about actors, movies, books, and Elvis Presley at her popular personal site, . Her first play, July and Half of August, recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood.