THE year is 1976, the year of the Great Drought, water rationing, and a summer heatwave with the hottest summer average temperature since records began. In the world of sport: second division Southampton have miraculously beaten Manchester United 1-0 to lift the FA cup, the Summer Olympics in Montreal are boycotted by most African nations in protest over the New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa, Mohammed Ali is victorious over Ken Norton after a controversial 15 round fight to keep his heavyweight title, and Red Rum is beaten by Rag Trade in the Grand National to come in runner-up for the second year running. It’s a year of sporting turmoil and surprises; Bjorn Borg defeats Ilie Nastase 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 in the Wimbledon final and the long standing rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt finally comes to a head, capturing the attention of the Formula One racing world.
It’s this rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that is at the centre of Rush, a new movie directed by Ron Howard. It tells the story of the 1976 Formula One World Championship, and weaves a tale of two men battling to gain supremacy over each other both on and off the circuit. At first glance Rush could be mistaken for just another motor racing movie along the lines of Steve McQueen’s 1971 Le Mans, but the depth and the complexity of the relationship between Hunt, played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Lauda, realistically played by German actor Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) raises the film above the usual speed and spill of a motor racing romp.
Yes, Rush breaks the mould; the fast action racing scenes are breathtaking, the personal dynamics of the two drivers on and off the track complex and intriguing, the storytelling compelling. To say that the two men’s personalities clashed, only begins to describe the rivalry between ‘Hunt the Shunt’ and the stoic Austrian. For once, although it’s unlikely to win many awards, Rush brilliantly relates a F1 story that can be watched by all, not just petrolheads, as Hunt and Lada play chase with death in an attempt to dominate each other and win the F1 title.
At first impression, Rush seems to be the story of Niki Lauda, who in 1976 overcame a near-fatal crash and terrible burns to return to racing just 42 days later. Instead though, it focuses on the story of blond racing playboy, James Hunt, driving for McLaren and living life on the grand scale. Hunt, with his good looks, champagne lifestyle and ladies-man reputation, was generally regarded as a casual risk-taker on the track. Early in the film, he staggers into a hospital bloodied from a racing accident and introduces himself as “Hunt. James Hunt.” A few minutes later he is heard having sex behind the screens with the nurse who’s treating him.
Hunt is portrayed living la dolce vita, but as the story unfolds we see him struggling with his personal life and glimpse an underlying despair. Lauda’s personal life gets less attention, perhaps because Lauda’s actual personal life wasn’t as excessive and was far more disciplined than Hunt’s. Driving for the Ferrari team, Lauda is portrayed as methodical, industrious, risk averse, and generally not much fun. “You’re just a party boy,” he sneers at Hunt at one point. It’s these contrasts in approach which add depth to the film as Ron Howard carefully brings out the differences, strengths and weaknesses in both characters and their approach to life and racing. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), work well together in portraying a rivalry which drives both men to take too many chances, laying out their weaknesses and strengths and leading the viewer to reflect on the true cost of winning and what winning means.
On balance Rush dishes out a harsher judgment on Hunt, but both driver’s approach to life comes under the microscope. Rush is a well-acted, nicely-paced film that avoids the usual clichés to present us with a movie to make you think as well as make your pulse race. It has glamour, sex, more than a little humour, an exciting, full throttle, adrenalin rushed centre and is brilliantly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire. Around three dozen cameras were used for the race scenes, many mounted on cars, some even inside the drivers’ helmets. The result is to give a real feel of the terrifying speed and danger of F1 racing.
Perhaps Rush’s greatest strength though, certainly the film’s heart, may be to underline that the speed heroes of Formula One are just men both inside and outside their machines. They are vulnerable flesh, blood, and emotion – just like the rest of us.
Director: Ron Howard. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Christian McKay