Ron Howard’s take on James Hunt and Niki Lauda’s 70’s rivalry is a thrilling hymn to male pride and motor sport.
A true story of the bitter battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda for the memorable 1976 Formula One world championship: two men, with diametrically opposed temperaments, each literally defying death to gain supremacy over his rival. The premise may well seem familiar to UK filmgoers. Yet Asif Kapadia’s brilliantly dramatic documentary, Senna remains largely unseen by mainstream audiences in America, where it was also scandalously overlooked at the Oscars (here, it won two prestigious Baftas).
To fill that gap, we now have Rush, Ron Howard’s multiplex-friendly account of the friction-filled relationship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, which eerily echoes the tensions teased out between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Asif Kapadia’s groundbreaking work. Well oiled, excitingly noisy and machine-tooled for maximum popcorn appeal, Howard’s roaring drama depicts men risking life and limb in insanely dangerous circumstances, although the film itself prefers to play it safe in order to pull in the widest possible crowd.
Rush breaks the mould; its racing scenes are thrilling, and the personal dynamics in the pits and away from the track genuinely intriguing. Here’s a Formula One story that’s not just for petrolheads. Of course, it’s not really a Hollywood picture at all, but a generously budgeted independent film. Rush combines studios’ production values and their penchant for action, with British-flavoured storytelling.
Whilst Hunt is a handsome playboy with a champagne lifestyle and shagadelic reputation (his badge bears the legend “Sex: Breakfast of Champions”), Lauda is a “rat-faced” systems analyst who goes to bed early after sweating over the mathematical permutations of success.
Australian actor Chris Hemsworth takes the apparent star role as the blond, glamorous English playboy Hunt, driving for McLaren, widely regarded as a casual risk-taker on the track: a man routinely pictured with a glass of champagne and two or three biddable young women clinging to his limbs. In an early scene, he staggers bloodied from a racetrack into a hospital and announces himself, 007 style, as “Hunt. James Hunt.”
Hemsworth appears on occasion to be channelling the spirit of Austin Powers, a merry English swinger for whom naughty NHS nurses in stockings provide more than first aid, while saucy stewardesses offer obliging membership to the mile-high club at the drop of a polo-neck sweater.
The dour Austrian Lauda, driving for the Ferrari team, is played with remarkable conviction by German actor Daniel Brűhl who you may recall from Inglourious Basterds. Lauda was methodical, industrious, a cerebral assessor of risk, and generally not much fun. “You’re just a party boy,” he sneers at Hunt. What perfect rivals.
There’s more going on here, then, than initially meets the eye. Rush induces the adrenalin suggested by its title in its racing scenes: howlingly, teeth-rattlingly loud and cut lightning-fast, in what look to be perilous close-ups. It’s far more of a thrill ride than watching Formula One on TV.
Hemsworth is ready for action on and off the track and carries off an essentially British brand of insouciance to good effect, although his British accent sometimes slides like slick-tyred wheels on a rainy racetrack.
But it’s Brühl as the rigidly locked-down Lauda who is arguably the more interesting of the two; while Hunt’s boyish enthusiasms are all on the surface, the enigmatic Austrian’s driving forces are more elusive, causing us to wonder about his true motives. Like his eternal adversary, he is a son of wealth rebelling against a privileged past, the common bond that joins this odd couple. But whereas Hunt wears his passions on his sleeve (or, more often, his underpants), Lauda’s demons are somewhat internalised, leaving Brühl to wrestle with an emotionally distant character, something he manages with ease.
Brűhl’s Lauda grows in stature as Rush progresses, and from the film’s turning point –his appalling accident in a Grand Prix at Nűrburgring, where he sustained terrible burns to his head and face and damage to his lungs – he becomes the emotional centre of the story.
Rush marks a return to Howard’s roots, which are firmly grounded in cinematic dreams of cars. Having starred in American Graffiti, with its nostalgic evocations of drive-ins and hot rods, Howard made his directorial feature debut, in 1977, with Grand Theft Auto, a motorised romantic caper publicised with a cartoon pile-up poster proudly brandishing the tagline: “See the greatest cars in the world destroyed!” – a promise on which Rush makes good.
Much credit goes to the amazing team of cinematic mechanics whom Howard has assembled to fine-tune his vehicle – from Anthony Dod Mantle’s typically deft and probing camerawork, always finding the unexpected perspective, to the collective efforts of the sound department, whose crunchy gear changes and booming engine throbs put the audience right there in the driver’s seat.
Visually, the film has an access-all-areas pass to every nook and cranny of the cars, but it’s the pulsing bassline of that soundtrack that provides the dramatic chassis of the race sequences. Solid supporting performances add to the appeal, with Alexandra Maria Lara and Olivia Wilde making the most of their twin muse roles, while Christian McKay reminds us that we have seen too little of him since his breakthrough role in Me and Orson Welles.
Mantle deployed some three dozen cameras for the race scenes, many of them mounted on cars, even some inside drivers’ helmets and it pays off: there’s a jolting immediacy about these ultra high-speed scenes that shooting them from a safe distance simply cannot replicate.
Bright, brash and unashamedly formulaic, this is thrillingly accessible fare, aiming more for the straight lines of the home stretch than the tricky curves of those treacherous corners, with Howard keeping one eye always on the grandstand. Rush has sex, glamour, a fair degree of wit and a breathless, pedal-to-the-metal spirit. But its greatest achievement may be to underline that there are real men, all vulnerable flesh and blood, inside those infernal machines.
By Ruth Walker