Trying to dodge film reviews, I’ve found, is like trying to avoid hair product ads or reality shows or anything involving Miley Cyrus. It can’t be done. They drift into your consciousness via TV, internet or print media. And unlike those topics, (which I find induce drowsiness or aggravation, depending on mood), the principle behind my steering clear of movie reviews is to enter the cinema with an untainted sense of anticipation.
Difficult to reach that state when the film involves a true story, and one that you know well. Ron Howard’s “Rush,” which opens today in select theaters and across the country next Friday, will always face criticism from the ardent purists. Some will want to pick holes in it, say, “That’s not Paul Ricard circuit, it’s Brands Hatch,” or, “That car wasn’t introduced until two rounds later,” or question why this incident or that incident was not included. Well, did we want this to be a comprehensive 10-hour documentary of the entire 1976 Formula 1 season that appeals only to the fraction of a fraction of the one percent of the population that is fanatical about racing history? Or did we want Howard and scriptwriter Peter Morgan to put their skills to work in presenting a heroic racing battle from the mid-’70s, and present it in a way that may draw in new fans of the sport?
Frankly, I think there’s room for both type of film, but only the latter has the potential to have lasting value for the sport itself. If you’re on RACER.com, it’s reasonable to assume you’re a race fan. I’d like to think, also, that you don’t wish your love of racing to be a clandestine affair, but something that others can understand once they learn to appreciate the sport’s glories and perils, its potential for both the magic and the tragic.
So let’s celebrate the fact that people for whom auto racing is faceless guys driving in endless circles now have a potential entry point, thanks to “Rush”. To you and I, Niki Lauda and James Hunt are two of the icons of racing; this movie endeavors to show why this also makes them great figures in sport as a whole, and why 1976 was the apex of a rivalry that stands comparison with any in any sport. And in that regard, “Rush” deserves to be a success.
Howard captures the period superbly, when the European racing scene was hanging onto the vision of amateur “fun” at junior levels but the visionary of a true professional, Jackie Stewart, had changed the top echelon into a recognizable version of the Formula 1 we watch today. Lauda, of course, followed the Stewart template, taking his own career and mortality very seriously and reaping the rewards on track. Hunt set his own agenda, retaining his boyish Formula Ford, Formula Fun approach all the way to F1 and enjoying his rewards in the sack.
The fact that these two were polar opposites of comparable raw talent and aiming at a common goal could sound like a clich taken from the sports movie playbook, but the differences between the Lauda approach and the Hunt approach to racing and life is not Morgan over-fictionalizing the script, but instead, a fact. OK, those who weren’t there at the time are left to wonder whether Lauda, an F1 sophomore in ’73, had already developed the iron will and outspokenness to be so demanding of the BRM team, or whether Hunt really was so shocked when Lord Hesketh pulled the plug on his team at the end of 1975. (Come to think of it, did James really expect that the Hesketh team had the money, drive and expertise to take on the might of Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus over the course of a whole season and thus compete for the championship? Well, maybe.)
But be in no doubt, “Rush” accurately portrays the stark contrast between their personalities. What may disappoint those who were there at the time and those who have read the appropriate books and magazines, is that these vastly different characters are portrayed as enemies here, when in reality, opposites attracted. They had hung out and gone partying together in their F3 days, and their respect for each other had long since blossomed into friendship. Leading figures in their respective teams, Ferrari and McLaren, may have despised each other, but the relationship between Lauda and Hunt was far more than just cordial and affable, even at the height of the championship battle.
Presumably, Howard thought putting the drivers at odds with each other was a better way to capture the imagination of the uninitiated viewers, and of course he gives himself license to do that by the fact that “Rush” is “Based on a True Story” [my italics]. But it wasn’t necessary. For one thing, his “Apollo 13” was another film based on a true story in which we already knew the ending, and that certainly didn’t require fictional enmity between the leading characters to make it compelling viewing. And secondly, Howard proves in “Rush” itself that he can bring out the subtleties of human nature and relationships: despite putting the drivers constantly at odds with each other, he never lets it descend into “dashing hero vs. cartoon villain.” Film-goers who don’t know the story beforehand will leave the cinema feeling at least as much affection for Lauda as they do for Hunt, and not just because Niki gets the sympathy vote following his life-threatening crash.
My point is, Howard is a sensitive enough director to have made the film about a friendly but fierce rivalry, rather than flipping it around to portray a respectful but aggressive hostility. And if I’ve dwelt on this aspect of “Rush,” it’s because many racing aficionados such as read RACER/RACER.com may feel dissatisfied about this switch. It’s as if the amusing little barbs that Lauda and Hunt used to exchange through the non-specialist media have been taken at face value, while the drivers are on the phone to each other, snickering at the press corps’ gullibility.
And yet, the positives of this movie far outweigh that one negative. The action sequences are excellent, the cars are (of course!) magnificent, the CGI effects convincing even under close scrutiny, and the plot rips along at 180mph, as it must to condense a whole season of drama in two hours. I checked with those in the audience who didn’t know the story of the season, and at no point had they been left confused by not knowing the Formula 1 points system of the time, nor did it matter that Hunt’s disqualification from the British Grand Prix months after the event effectively neutralized the points he won with victory in Canada. Again, the idea is to entertain and captivate, not bewilder and confuse. (And anyway, would anyone who didn’t know better truly believe all the polemics from that year? The 1976 Autocourse annual is as much a political journal as a record of racing.)
Finally, the acting. Chris Hemsworth makes a good James Hunt, capturing his bravura, animal competitiveness and (paradoxically) nerves in moments of high tension, but also his languid manner when content. And, of course, he shows the perfect amount of vulnerability to attract women and the right amount of gaucheness to bed them.
Daniel Bruhl, meanwhile, is fantastically accurate as Lauda. The clipped Austrian accent, the way of nodding his head and speaking quickly when making a forceful point, the dispassionate stare that only sometimes hides his emotions, the dry humor, the hilariously direct and forthright turn of phrase. Quite brilliant. It makes you want Howard to hire Bruhl to make sequels to this, covering the rest of Niki’s career. As for Lauda’s hospital scenes post-shunt at the ‘Ring, they’re as agonizing as the return at Monza is emotional. Truly, hideously, movingly superb cinema.
The support cast is good too. The scenes between Hunt and his wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) are brief but convey all they need to about the tensions between two people who love each other but naively thought that was enough to keep a marriage alive. But from the word go, it’s clear that relationship is never going to last and it’s hard to feel sympathy for either when the breakup occurs. By contrast, the interaction between Bruhl and Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene, Lauda’s wife, is more subtle and far, far more moving, and it’s hard not to feel great empathy for both.
Perhaps I’m overly enthusiastic because I never expected to see a new, mainstream movie that was appropriate for review by RACER, but I think “Rush” has earned its place among those (sadly few) excellent motorsport films. The principal characters are well portrayed. Their rivalry is convincing, if not accurate to real life. The on-track action is exciting. And the pace of the movie is well-judged, considering all the ground it must cover.
In short then, Ron Howard has done justice to an F1 season containing a ridiculous degree of drama. Book your tickets now.
RACER thanks Brembo for the chance to see “Rush” early. Highly appropriately, Brembo provided the stopping power for Ferrari from 1975, and thus won two World Championships in its first three years with the Scuderia. And as “Rush” proves, it was so nearly a hat-trick
The September issue of RACER magazine, on sale now, focuses on racing in the movies, past and present, including a behind-scenes looks at the making of “Rush,” “Grand Prix,” “Le Mans” and more. To subscribe now, click here, or to learn where to buy RACER in your area, click here. You can also purchase single copies directly at RacerMerch.com.