There have been many great rivalries in Formula One, and the 1970s saw one of the greatest – James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda. As is so often the case, there’s the lovable rogue (and generally the underdog) pitted against the calculating machine – both passionate about racing, but fundamentally different behind the wheel of a car. Clashing instantly on their first meeting in the lower leagues of British Formula 3, the two of them continue to rally against one another until they reach the most crucial season of their careers: 1976. Both are vying for the F1 World Championship. Both are at different crossroads in their personal lives. Will their acrimonious relationship effect what happens in their fight to the finish on the track, or will the inherent danger of motorsport tower all?
Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Cabin in the Woods)
Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum)
Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone)
Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall, The Reader)
Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Tudors)
Written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen)
Directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)
What Did I Think of the Film?
Having been a Formula One fan for the best part of 15 years, I approached Rush with wishful but nervous trepidation. Apart from 2011’s astonishing documentary Senna (Asif Kapadia), F1 has not translated to the big screen as well as the likes of baseball, boxing, or even roller derby. The sport’s history is full of so many cinematic stories – of people, of politics, of unscripted drama unfolding on the track, it’s difficult to see why it’s not attracted the attention it deserves. I was so excited to learn director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (teaming up again after Frost/Nixon) had chosen to adapt one such story into film: the 1970s rivalry between Brit James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Bruhl).
The 70s in Formula One was deadly and exotic. Far from the tactician’s playground it is today, the focus was on speed and character, and that’s what appealed to the players as well as the grandstands. And crucially for a film like Rush, it’s set before the days of extensive television coverage, so the race reconstructions are dazzling spectacles of amateur footage meshed with the creative interpretation of director Howard and his team. It captures the era perfectly – down to the death-defying cameramen lying on the grass verges by the track to get the best shots, to the confusion at the end of a race because results are determined by stopwatches and scoreboards. But oddly – for a film about the thrills of high octane motorsport – the focus is on the two drivers out of their race overalls, and delves deep into their personal lives.
The film opens as – with dismay – it means to go on: with an officious voiceover; the two characters introducing themselves in turn to the audience and explaining their very different personas: Hunt seducing the nurse who’s treating him at the hospital, and Lauda estranging himself from his banking family who don’t approve of his choice of career. This voiceover later gives way to the sport’s commentators, who continue to explain to us every detail of what is happening – great for the newbie, positively patronising to the informed.
It belies a technique that is one of the film’s biggest flaws. I appreciate wanting to open up a little known story to a wider audience – and Howard is a mainstream director – but reliance on voiceover and so much textual information on screen is lazy filmmaking. This is a spectacle. It’s an arena. Show us; don’t tell us – especially for something so visceral, and visual. One of the successes of Senna was being able to commit to the complexities and romance of the sport without excluding non-fans, and this is something Rush isn’t brave enough to execute.
Morgan’s script is frustratingly all over the place. When it’s good it’s great: the perspective of the two stars is well balanced (there could have been a tendency to veer towards Lauda, as he is the more intriguing of the two) and there are some extraordinary candid conversations, which are a joy to watch. There’s fun too – the moment when Lauda meets his future wife Marlene (Lara) is a real standout. But the central drama is so far wide of the mark. Creative licence is a huge problem: stripped down, it’s barely a rivalry at all between the two men – it’s a clash of personalities, a case of getting off on the wrong foot. Their continued childish bickering and jibing at one another throughout the film becomes dull and repetitive. In real life they were good friends and even lived together – if that’s not right for the cinema, then at least push it all the way in the opposite direction and have them screaming at each other and fisticuffs on the track. Their true rivalry comes from racing, and because this is so woefully neglected until two thirds into the film, what really is there to substantiate this feud? (And I’m sure there’s a drinking game to be played on how many times the word asshole is uttered)
Pivotal moments in their careers are glossed over in montage – a shot of Lauda’s Ferrari crossing the finish line is all we see of his first World Championship win, and similarly Hunt’s achievements are also hastily passed over. For a film about their progression to the pinnacle of their careers, I found this baffling. Surely these are moments worth savouring? Instead we spend far too much time on Hunt’s playboy lifestyle – soapy subplots which are both irrelevant to the story, and severely underserve both Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde.
The drama comes from racing, and this finally explodes onto the screen predictably at the infamous 1976 German Grand Prix. Lauda’s terrifying crash at the Nurburgring may not have instilled the dread the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix did in Senna, but the reaction is still effective. Despite the intrusive Hans Zimmer score (we don’t need music to tell us how to feel in this case, thanks), the scene is nerve-wrenching. The film becomes a different beast after that – suddenly finding its correct gear and zooming between horror, drama and excitement. The final championship decider at Fuji is unbelievably tense – and most importantly – unscripted.
Hemsworth is hugely likeable as the roguish Hunt, and is having a tonne of fun here. Though his accent wanders, he gets the mannerisms down to a tee – the nervous energy, the ritualistic vomiting before a race. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of his character behind the wheel – with the nickname Hunt the Shunt, we see none of his adventurous manoeuvres and fiery altercations on track. Bruhl has completely encapsulated Niki Lauda with his performance – fierce, lived-in, authentic. He is fantastic, and could be the dark horse during awards season.
Sadly, the secondary characters (half of whom seem to have been in Green Wing) are drawn thin to the point of sketches. There are 25 drivers competing in the F1 World Championship, but you could be forgiven for thinking there were only two when you come out of Rush. Apart from Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino), all the other drivers are unidentified shadows, background filler on the grid, and you are not once told who James Hunt’s teammate is (a point for who can tell me). For a fan this is deeply upsetting – there was a chance there to bring the family of race drivers to life, to give them personalities, motivations, friendships, which would have elevated the race sequences even further, particularly in the era of Jody Scheckter, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Alan Jones – all World Champions.
The most emotional moment of the film comes at the bittersweet end, the two drivers admitting – without actually admitting – how their differences bring them closer. Lauda tells Hunt: “ a wise man will learn more from his enemies than a fool will from his friends.” Maybe Rush needed a few more enemies in the edit suite. Howard has made an enjoyable film for the masses, and the attention to period detail and select archive footage makes it look grainy, and beautiful. But this is not a patch on Senna, and us F1 aficionados will have to wait a while longer for our dramatised masterstroke.
Watch if: for a frothy popcorn, mainstream introduction into the world of Formula One
Don’t watch if: you want 120 minutes of pure, uninterrupted adrenalin fuelled racing
Overall Rating 6/10
Kate McCall – @_culturemouse