Rush, by Ron Howard, was released in theaters in North America this weekend and has been met with very positive reviews in general. The movie was made on an indie budget of approximately $38 million and shot in Europe. It is centered on the real-life rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) in 1976.
The theme of the movie is really entertwined around the risk the drivers of that era took when racing in Formula 1. As Bruhl’s character, Lauda, points out many times—there is a 20% chance that we will die in the race every time we get in the car.
This isn’t a new theme to racing movies as the Holy Grail of Formula 1 movies, Grand Prix, was also centered on that very theme, as was Le Mans with Steve McQueen. The reason is, perhaps, that racing was primarily about risk in those days and as Formula 1’s voice of safety, Sir Jackie Stewart, recalled, between 1963 and 1973 no fewer than 57 friends died and many of those deaths were in horrific accidents while doing the very same thing Jackie was doing.
The 1960’s was a decade where the drivers had to accept that it was not just a possibility of death but more likely the probability of death, as Stewart put it. The 1970’s were slightly safer but only after Stewart and other drivers placed immense pressure on the organizers to make changes to the circuit but even then, a 20% chance is still incredibly high by today’s standards given that Formula 1’s last fatality was in 1994.
The risk is most certainly still there each and every race weekend and it is that risk that becomes a major theme in any racing storyline. Thankfully we have not had a stark reminder of that in many years but the racing circuit is dangerous and the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix is proof as a race marshal tragically lost his life while retrieving an abandoned car.
The other, obvious, theme is the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. The story is one of the great storylines of F1 history and Howard really does make the movie about the clash of two titans in F1 in 1976. Lauda was critically injured and burned at Nürburgring that year but six weeks later he rejoined, in obvious agony, to compete and defend his World Championship title.
Interestingly, as a Formula 1 nutcase, I was surprised how little of the film was spent unpacking the intricacies of the series itself. For hardened F1 fans, it was far from an insightful documentary on that time period in F1 racing. It truly was all about the story of two men with Formula 1 as the occupation they chose—a backdrop if you will. If they were bullfighters or fighter plane pilots, the movie would have had the same feel. The story was exactly what Howard was compelled by and he got it.
If you are looking for a period piece where you learn a little more about McLaren’s approach to the Japanese Grand Prix in 1976, you won’t find it. If you are looking for a slightly new look at the inner workings of the Ferrari 312, you won’t find it here.
What you do get is a well-told story about the freewheeling, talented playboy James Hunt and the clinical, focused Austrian Niki Lauda. You get the story, with some Hollywood embellishments for a more compelling story, as it happened…more or less.
The movie is really done well for a limited budget as well as limited CGI for special effect. Creating different circuits from the same racetrack the film was shot at is evident from the steeped F1 fan but it takes very little away from the film and is nitpicking at best. When you start to peel away the onion layers of the movie, you find really nice elements on their own and combined.
The acting was well done and even Harvey Postlethwaite, (Jamie de Courcey) makes an appearance in the Hesketh team. Not too shabby for a lad from the Royal Masonic Scholl for Boys.
Bruhl is certainly a convincing Lauda replete with the voice and patented “bullshit” lexicon and Hemsworth did a nice job of bringing Hunt to the screen. Hunt passed away in 1993 of a heart attack and Rush certainly gives you an idea of how living hard could have had something to do with his untimely death.
Even the “Old Man”, Enzo Ferrari (Augusto Dallara) and the current president, Luca di Montezemolo (Ilario Calvo) show up. Former McLaren man Teddy Mayer (Colin Stinton) and Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) make for a nice cast in which Lauda and Hunt shine.
Two Antagonists…or protagonists
I did like that Howard chose to tell the story as two antagonists to each others storyline. The conventional theory of storytelling is that every protagonist needs and antagonist and the movie Senna suffered, in my opinion, because of that. Prost was the obvious antagonist to the story but at times, unfairly so.
You had a tendency to smile and wince at each character at different moments in the story as they caromed off each other’s careers. It would have been easy to make the handsome, perfectly sculptured Hemsworth version of Hunt the obvious protagonist. Hunt himself had a quality and panache, good or bad, which was magnetic. Lauda was less magnetic but no less talented. Howard chose to let both up and downside of each character exist as the viewer determined who their protagonist was. For me, it was both.
Howard chose to explore Niki Lauda much deeper and find the qualities in the man that make him a paddock icon while those on the periphery see a frumpy curmudgeon amongst the glitterati. Niki was a clinical tactician and immensely talented driver. He is a frank-speaking Austrian who sees life in its available light. That comes through with much aplomb in Howard’s script.
The checkered Flag
In the end, I immensely enjoyed the movie with its low budget, focused story-telling approach. Hollywood clichés were not missed but they didn’t distract from the overall goal of retelling a good story of grit, skill, determination and risk in a world where death and eternity could be merely one corner away.
For moviegoers that are not Formula 1 fans, you will be moved through the story, the strongest element, and be sprinkled with F1 lore, logistics, technology and sound. It is just enough F1 dust to help you understand the risk and reward that is used to build the motivation for the characters and storyline but not too much as to bog you down with extraneous details that only F1 anoraks can appreciate.
Ron Howard knew very little about F1 when he started the project and asked lots of questions in order to make a movie for people like him…a moviegoer who loves a good story and likes to know a little about the world in which that story lived. I believe Mr. Howard has once again proven that he is a movie fan first, director second and that’s just fine by me.