From the moment Ron Howard let it be known that he was doing a movie built around the 1976 Formula One season, everyone listening had massive expectations for such a flick, and they couldn’t help it. Those of us who love racing are nothing short of starved for good movies about our beloved motorsports, and with so many bad ones over the years we look at each new racing film with a particular scrutiny. Howard’s failure with his last two action projects (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) didn’t alleviate suspicions, either, but the fact that he teamed up with screenwriter Peter Morgan, who did Frost/Nixon with him, along with his visible enthusiasm for bringing Formula One to the screen made things a bit more encouraging.
The other hurdle that Rush will have to overcome straight away is comparison to that other odyssey of F1 rivalry, Senna. The list of truly great racing movies like Grand Prix and Le Mans is rather short, and Senna is by far the most recent. These two films, while they share similar stories, take obviously different approaches, with one being a documentary and the other a Hollywood production with Olivia Wilde and that guy who played Thor. Senna has been adored by practically everyone who’s seen it, so in the inevitable comparison Rush has some big shoes to fill, especially given that it has to recreate the Grands Prix and dramas of the past instead of compiling existing footage. To be perfectly clear, Rush is not the all-time racing masterpiece that some may have hoped it would be. It isn’t an opus for F1 fanatics. The racing itself is intermittent and not always central to the story so no, it is not catered solely to car people, but what Rush does instead is present a genuinely good movie that just happens to be set in the glitzy universe of what has been called the golden age of Formula One. Those of us hungry for racing flicks will leave full, but perhaps even more importantly Rush, through presenting a captivating story, is bound to make plenty of brand new race fans.
The plot of this movie is already well-known, but it bears repeating that Formula One in the ‘70s was an exciting world full of glamour, danger, and hair. The rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, which is the primary focus of Rush, is just one part of this era, but it was certainly one of its most exciting chapters. Their rivalry, combined with their very much opposing personalities and approaches to racing, make for a gripping tale, and though most of this story is true, it translated to a Hollywood script almost seamlessly. The movie begins with Lauda and Hunt becoming aware of each other during a scrape in a 1970 Formula Three race and follows right up to the climax of Hunt’s 1976 World Championship win in the torrential rains of the Japanese Grand Prix, all the while examining their relationships and their approaches to driving. Howard did take some artistic liberties by inserting Lauda into the opening race sequence, a race he was not a part of (Hunt’s Lotus was also red, not green), but other than that and a few very minor things put in for the sake of drama, all else seems true to the reality on which this film is based.
One of the reasons the Lauda vs Hunt story is so appealing for a movie is how the two drivers so neatly fit into conflicting archetypes. Hunt is the English rock star/playboy who drives with reckless abandon, and Lauda is the cool, calculating Austrian who keeps to himself and drives methodically. Rush does a very fine job of keeping each character on a level playing field. Much of the film is narrated by one or the other, and though first impressions might leave you thinking that James Hunt is the one protagonist here, that isn’t the case. Senna gives you a clear good guy vs bad guy conflict, with Alain Prost at certain points being just a few steps away from pure evil, but in Rush there is no such distinction. Hunt and Lauda at various points each show both arrogance and vulnerability, humor and frustration. Again, first impressions make it seem like Hunt, the more colorful and vivacious guy that he is, would be the one to root for but Lauda’s story is so compelling at parts, especially in his struggles to get back into the car after his near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring, that you really don’t know who to side with. Hunt brings more in outright entertainment, but Lauda comes across as somewhat misunderstood and is probably the more interesting character in the end. There is no good and bad in this story, just two opposite characters who manage to leave the viewer right in the middle, looking back and forth.
Casting was, for the most part, spot on. The only small exceptions I could find were that the handsome, distinguished-looking fellow playing McLaren Director Teddy Mayer is nothing like the tiny, geeky, beady-eyed fellow that Mayer was in real life, and that the English fellow doing the race commentary, presumably trying his best impression of famed commentator Murray Walker, is just a tad off. Most everything else, though, is deeply impressive. Period cameras, clothing and street cars make everything totally believable, and even the minor characters like Lauda’s teammate Clay Regazzoni are well-acted and well-developed. A convincing Enzo Ferrari even makes a short appearance, sunglasses and all. The main characters, though, are the real standout here. Daniel Brühl quite simply is Niki Lauda. The accent, the way he carries the burns on his face, even his pronounced overbite are all perfect. And credit where credit is due, Chris Hemsworth is a strong James Hunt. While the voice isn’t as spot on as Brühl’s, the look and mannerisms are all there, from bare feet to beer bottles and from his habit of vomiting before a race to his witty remarks in the media. This is definitely a fitting period piece, and Rush shows Ron Howard’s clout as a director and his ability to get a solid story and characters across in a setting so dazzling that it might otherwise be distracting.
For a movie that promised such action and excitement in its glossy trailers, however, Rush was a tad on the slow side in its first half. Other than their periodic tiffs, Lauda and Hunt develop almost totally separated from each other, and a significant amount of the two-hour film is devoted to love interests. This is relevant to Lauda’s storyline but for Hunt, who is deliberately but not excessively shown in his stereotypical playboy ways, the decision to focus so much on his short marriage didn’t seem to accomplish much. There is also lots and lots of talk about racing, and of course this comes at the cost of the actual racing sequences. I don’t think I will be the only one left wanting for a little more on-track footage, and though it would have been ruinously expensive (even with the $50 million budget) to shoot on location at each ‘70s Grand Prix circuit, seeing the movie gloss over the 1975 season and then much of the ’76 season with a montage featuring painfully short recaps of each Grand Prix was a bit disappointing. This is a racing movie, after all. But all is not lost as Rush really picks up strength, and finally won me over in a big way after Lauda’s fiery crash at the Nürburgring. That whole sequence is phenomenal, by the way, from the tension developed by Lauda’s uneasiness going into the race to the shot of the crash itself, which plays exactly like the period footage, only in the movie’s case you’re seeing the Ferrari erupt into flames clear as day on a big screen rather than through the grainy film we’ve all seen on YouTube. From this point on, both Hunt and Lauda’s personal struggles as well as their conflict with each other really start to pick up momentum and there is more racing footage to boot. Even if you know every detail of this true story, Lauda’s incredible recovery after being as good as dead, his equally incredible comeback and the dangerously close points battle between him and Hunt leading up and into the race in Japan brings out palpable tension. Then, after the climax of Japan, it lets us down smoothly and by the end they are flashing quick shots of the real James and Nicki in period, as if to show us just how spot on the whole thing has been.
As far as the technical stuff, there may very well be some with sharper eyes than I who will have some nits to pick, but I came away satisfied. My initial fear was excessive computer-generated imagery. It has a way of ruining movies and part of me really was terrified that computers would ruin this movie, especially as I remembered the abysmal racing scene in Iron Man 2. Other than one or two race sequences, though, the special effects were not overly artificial. From where I was sitting, most everything was believable. Any excuse to sit down and hear screaming F1 engines at full blast, especially F1 engines from the ‘70s, is certainly welcomed, but Rush got the sounds correct as well. When you saw a Lotus, a McLaren or a six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 you heard a Cosworth DFV V-8, and when you saw a BRM or a Ferrari you heard their respective V or flat-12. There also weren’t random songs thrown in over the racing for dramatic effect, allowing the viewer to revel in the real music, that of Cosworth and Ferrari at high revs.
My only complaint with the racing scenes is that they are too choppy. In John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, made way back in 1966, there are amazingly long takes with onboard footage, slipstreaming, passing and re-passing. There are even long sequences in the footwell, showing the masterful footwork required to drive a Grand Prix car at speed through a place like Monaco. By contrast, the driving sequences in Rush are divided up into one or three second shots, a quick flash of a hand downshifting here, a sudden mash of the pedal there, and then a three second shot of cars whizzing by. For all the human drama in the rest of this movie, it just didn’t show the discipline and skill of driving ten-tenths at this level of motorsports. That’s not to take away from some truly amazing cinematography, though. The aforementioned Nürburgring crash is joined by other true to life scenes like Hunt passing Lauda, obscured from view by the trees, through Druid’s at the British Grand Prix, and the final wet race at Japan is breathtaking. The filmmakers capture the atmosphere of Formula One back then quite convincingly, too, showing thousands of tents pitched at the Nürburgring or the clamoring fans at Monza. Though I never actually saw the ‘70s, for 120 minutes I almost felt like I lived them.
Rush has its shortcomings, but other than some slow development they mainly come from a car person being predictably picky. Overall, it very much passes what I take to be the true test of whether a racing film is great or not, mass appeal. Someone who has never even heard of Formula One (there are plenty of them) can sit down and watch this movie and they will enjoy it, learn something and probably talk about it for some time after it is over. That’s good storytelling and that’s good filmmaking. Rush strikes the right balance between a human drama and a sensory feast for gearheads, a difficult achievement and one that should be applauded and maybe even awarded. As I said before, the list of truly great racing movies is pretty short, but I think it’s about to get a little bit longer.
[Source: Andrew Newton; photos: Universal]