James Hunt and Niki Lauda: Driven To Excellence
In Rush, Ron Howard brings the 1976 Formula 1 season to life with drama, not driving
"At around 170 mph, this thing’s a bomb on wheels," future champion James Hunt appreciatively tells his soon-to-be wife as he lovingly strokes his fuel-injected chariot. "Why don’t they make it safer?" she asks.
"The risk of death turns people on." The past is indeed a strange land, equating motor sport with gladiatorial combat, where racecar drivers dance with death like latter-day Ben Hurs.
Ron Howard’s latest film Rush charts this bygone era through the legendary rivalry between two racing prodigies: the supremely talented yet undisciplined Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, who played Thor in Marvel comic movies), and Austria’s steely, calculating local son Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, doing a convincing Austrian accent in the English version and a spot-on impression in German).
Beginning in their days in the lower-tier formula three, their competitive enmity only increases as they move up in the racing world. In the 1976 season, Lauda takes an early lead until he famously crashes on the treacherous Nürburgring, nearly dying when his car catches fire. With his greatest obstacle out of the way, Hunt dominates the championship, until Lauda returns from the dead for the final showdown, unwilling to cede his title without a fight.
Howard outdoes himself this time, again capturing the mystique of machines in motion as he did with Apollo 13 in 1995. Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) contributes richly to the film’s gorgeous visuals. And while Rush is undeniably a good film with Oscar potential, it sadly falls short of brilliance.
The fast and the frivolous
The film suffers from several deficiencies, some of them inherent to the subject. The unenviable task of maintaining suspense in a sport consisting of driving around in circles for hours, where points, not victories make champions, was adequately solved by showing surprisingly little racing, relying instead on several isolated yet spectacular set-pieces.
Also, despite it’s two-hour runtime, the characters remain vexingly elusive. Screenwriter (and Vienna resident) Peter Morgan manages to partially overcome this in quiet moments between the flamboyance, intrigue and enmity of the F1 circus. This is where Morgan’s script (and the excellent supporting cast- Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda in particular stands out) truly shines.
James Hunt, temporarily grounded by his team’s bankruptcy, is so defined by his identity as a driver that he is reduced to drinking scotch and playing with a children’s slot car track- only snapping out of it upon hearing his rival signed with Ferrari. Or Niki Lauda, who refuses to drive fast on winding Italian roads because there is nothing in it for him – until his future wife suggestively asks him to.
Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife, otherwise barely visible, also has a memorable scene as she breaks down in tears watching her estranged husband finally win his heart’s desire, despite having left him for Richard Burton.
However these excellently crafted moments are no substitute for ongoing character development, and are drowned out by the roar of engines and the film’s overarching theme.
Love your enemies
Which only becomes clear well into the final third, with the realisation that neither Hunt nor Lauda are the actual protagonists of the story. Neither is particularly likeable, and both behave very badly. Hunt is a self-indulgent drunk and womaniser, wilfully risking lives on the racetrack and fooling himself into believing that his disdain for death makes him chivalrous.
Lauda, on the other hand, is simply pedantic, a pain-in-the-posterior who doesn’t know the meaning of the word empathy, forcing his mechanics to toil all night, insulting people to their faces, and callously blaming a fatal crash on the driver’s incompetence. He basks in the world’s antagonism, taking it as proof that he’s a successful racer. When they call each other "asshole", both are right.
But this movie isn’t really about Hunt, or Lauda, or even racing. It’s about how competition can bring out the best and worst in people. Both envy the other and are not above fighting dirty; Lauda has Hunt disqualified on a technicality, and Hunt rallies fellow drivers to overrule Lauda’s safety concerns on the day of his fateful crash. Yet from the very beginning, both are driven by the other to hitherto unobtainable heights.
In the key scene where Lauda returns badly burnt and heavily bandaged, a mere six weeks after his near-death experience, a remorseful Hunt admits he feels responsible. Lauda matter-of-factly agrees. But watching him win all those races while Lauda fought for his life made Hunt equally responsible for getting him back in his car.
By the end of the film, both have triumphed, willing to call each other’s rationalisations. Risking his life doesn’t make him a winner, Lauda tells Hunt, who in turn asks Lauda to stop talking for once about percentages and calculated risk; by doing so, he’s killing the sport. There is enough mutual regard that they’re willing to consider.
Sometimes, a worthy enemy is as valuable as a good friend.
Rush: Directed by Ron Howard
Opens 3 Oct. in English at:
Burg Kino, 1., Opernring 19
Artis International, 1., Schultergasse 5
Village Cinemas, 3., Landstraßer Hauptstr. 2a
Haydn Kino, 6., Mariahilfer Straße 57
Here is the TVR slideshow of the Rush Gala Premiere at the Gartenbau Kino!