Ron Howard’s new film recreates one of the greatest seasons in Formula One
6If it hadn’t really happened you’d have to make it up; although a Hollywood screenwriter would undoubtedly have changed the ending. In the fictional version, the obsessive, courageous and probably American racing driver would have come back from his near-fatal crash to beat the drunken playboy and take the world title. Of course it didn’t happen like that in reality and Ron Howard’s Rush does a brilliant job of telling the story of the rivalry between the Austrian driver Niki Lauda and Britain's James Hunt, focusing on the 1976 Formula One season that Hunt famously won on the last race.
When you consider just how dramatic that season was, it’s a wonder that no one has made a film of it before - although there have been some excellent documentaries. The story has everything with plenty of sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll - mostly thanks to the never boring Hunt. There’s action and excitement provided by both Hunt and Lauda, along with real drama and genuine courage, especially when Lauda returns to racing a mere six weeks after nearly burning to death. There’s even a spot of intrigue, largely provided by Ferrari and their blatant attempts to manipulate the rules to their advantage. All ending on the last race of the season, as the drivers hurtle around a rain soaked track in the shadow of Mount Fuji.
It’s possible that the reason it's taken so long for a film to be made is that Formula One has never been that popular in America and thus the money men have shied away from the subject. The last great Formula One picture was Grand Prix, which was shot on 65mm and is worth seeing as it perfectly captured the essence of the sport in the late sixties. It also a terrifying statistic that of the 32 drivers that participated in Grand Prix, five were dead in two years and five more within ten. More recently, the dire Sylvester Stallone film Driven was originally going to be a biopic of Ayrton Senna but restrictions placed on the production by Formula One resulted in the film switching to CART racing.
It is ironic therefore that it took an American director to finally tell the story, although the genesis of the project was playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan. Taking a break from stories about the Queen and Tony Blair, Morgan decided to write the screenplay on ‘spec’ - that’s to say he hadn’t been commissioned and there was no one paying him for it. He deliberately avoided any of the actual races in the original screenplay, in order to keep the budget down, and instead concentrated on the off-track rivalry between Lauda and Hunt. Thankfully the screenplay was picked up by Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment production company, resulting in the second collaboration between the two after Frost/Nixon.
It is a relief that Morgan and Howard have kept close to the truth but then why change anything when the story is this good? They have also resisted any temptation to resort to stunt casting, instead populating the film with some solid English character actors. Only Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife Suzy Miller raises an eyebrow but it's a relatively small role and to her credit she does a decent English accent.
For the role of James Hunt, the filmmakers chose Chris Hemsworth, the Australian actor best known for playing Thor. Although Hemsworth really does look and sound like Hunt, with his blonde locks and posh English accent it’s hard not to be reminded of the actor’s more famous role. Hemsworth gives a good account of himself playing the complex role of Hunt, a man driven to self-destructive ends by his own demons. Hunt is an easy character like but the filmmakers also make you care about him and Hemsworth shows he's more than just a nice set of pectoral muscles.
Attention to detail permeates every frame of Rush, in fact it’s so accurate that you wonder if the filmmakers didn’t just go back in time and film the ’76 season.
Far less easy to like, at least in the film, is Niki Lauda but German actor Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) totally embodies the Austrian driving ace. In fact he so looks like Lauda, both before and after his infamous accident, that you almost forget he's an actor. Bruhl plays Lauda as an obsessive with a chip on his shoulder, who is completely dedicated to racing but understands that times are changing. Lauda represents the beginning of the modern era, where drivers spend time setting up their car, understand the mechanics, are technically proficient and don’t take unnecessary risks. Hunt on the other hand perfectly encapsulates the post-war racing driver, living life to the full and ignoring the risks. It should come as no surprise to discover that Lauda is still alive and Hunt died of a heart attack at the age of only 45.
The film traces the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda from their early days in Formula 3 through to their entry into Formula One, culminating in the 1976 season. The second half of the film concentrates on the main races in that season and it’s here where the filmmakers really excel themselves. Ron Howard may not be a great director but he’s a very capable one, able to capture period detail and technical aspects extremely well. He directed parts of Apollo 13 in genuinely weightless conditions, creating the most accurate space film to date. The same attention to detail permeates every frame of Rush, in fact it’s so accurate that you wonder if the filmmakers didn’t just go back in time and film the ’76 season.
The film will be a dream come true for Formula One fans, who will no doubt spend time spotting the various famous characters and lusting over the cars themselves. The filmmakers actually had F1 cars from that period for static shots, although the racing scenes were performed with converted F3 cars. The stunt drivers certainly earned their pay on this movie, with Howard recreating some adrenaline packed race sequences that make you long for the days when Formula One was truly exciting. The film also reminds you just how dangerous F1 was at the time, with a truly horrifying mortality rate and, as Lauda constantly points out, a 20% chance of a serious accident in every race.
Anyone who has seen footage of Lauda’s accident at the Nurburgring will know just how accurate the film’s recreation of it is and Lauda’s attempts to get the race boycotted beforehand would be considered heavy handed writing were it not actually true. Lauda’s return to racing so soon after his near fatal crash provides much of the film’s dramatic impetus during it’s second half. At one point James Hunt claims that the secret of his speed is “big balls” (he actually did say that) but watching Lauda painfully pull his helmet over his burnt flesh reminds you that he had balls the size of church bells. Despite their rivalry and public dislike of each other, the film also makes it clear that the two men genuinely respected one another, something that Lauda himself has confirmed.
Rush is easily one of the best films this year - well cast, brilliantly written and expertly made. You don’t have to be a Formula One fan to enjoy it, although if you are you'll have a field day. For everyone else, the film is an unmissable thrill ride that centres on an incredible true story and revolves around two deeply flawed but fascinating characters. This is one film you really should rush to see.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.