‘I was chasing him like an asshole.’
Ron Howard has, it seems, a love for stories set in the 1970’s. These stories, like Apollo 13 (1995) and Frost/Nixon (2008), represent Hollywood’s need for a resolution and ‘happy endings’ but have a narrative that inherently seeks to explore significant challenges and conflicts for the characters. The viewer is often likely to be familiar with the story, for example, whether or not the members of Apollo 13 actually survive and indeed in Rush, the outcomes of the Formula 1 races of the mid 1970’s are likely to be known if you have any interest in motor racing. But, like Apollo 13, this is less of a concern because, again, Howard focuses on the protagonists’ journeys rather than their destinations.
Rush is centred on the rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), both brilliant racing car drivers of their era. Key to the appeal of Rush is that the viewer does not need to have any knowledge of or indeed care about motor racing because this is a film that is primarily about the characters, their personalities and the competition. Zapping around in a car is intrinsic to the film’s purpose on one level – relationships, sex, booze and sheer guts also help drive the plot and characterisation – but the way that everyone interacts is as important as the graphic racing disasters and sport on show. Whilst this is a film that will naturally appeal to those who know and love the history of Formula 1 racing, particularly in an era when restrictions were minimal and danger was at a maximum, the strength of Rush lies with the fact that it is a fascinating story. Fatalities in those days were high; as the introduction points out ’25 formula 1 drivers start the season and 2 die every year’. The consequences for Lauda were horrible but in many ways his story gives a real sense of human spirit amidst life-threatening adversity and bitter rivalry.
In Formula 3 motor racing playboy James Hunt discovers that the new kid on the track, Niki Lauda, is potential competition that he could do without. Hunt has a sponsor and enjoys the increasingly fast lifestyle that driving offers, particularly the booze and girls, and seeks to move up to Formula 1 which, although more expensive and difficult to enter, seems to be his ticket to fame, fortune and decadence. Lauda has financing issues. His rich father refuses to fund him, although he is clearly talented, but the Austrian has a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of cars and real determination to succeed, provided that his competitors play the game by the rules. As he notes later, ‘Rules are rules and rats are rats.’ Hunt wins ‘Driver of the Year’ in 1975 and the stakes are raised when the pair start competing in the massively sponsored, massively rewarded, massively dangerous world of Formula 1. But we also learn about the rivals’ lives off the track. Hunt declares, ‘Men love women even more than they love cars,’ and this is something that becomes apparent to his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) as their marital status does not seem to prevent the driver’s frequent infidelities, something that will see her eventually leave him for Richard Burton. With team driving issues and the need for increasing funds from the sponsors the stakes are high but it is the 1976 racing season that is to bring shocking consequences for the sport. Despite Lauda insisting that the race at Nürburgring should be cancelled due to dangerous driving conditions, James convinces the other drivers to compete. Lauda, faring so well in the overall championship, has a horrific accident that comes close to ending his life. Seriously injured and with severe burns to his face, he must watch the season progress without him as he makes a miraculous recovery in hospital. Determined that the season will not end with his points falling down the table, Lauda is resolute that he will return, whatever the consequences, despite many suggesting that such a move would be plain dangerous to a life that has already been brought to the brink of collapse by the very sport he sought to dominate.
The positive points in Rush are the aforementioned balancing of characterisation with sport in a manner that will still make the whole worthwhile viewing for those who know little about the racing world. When the intense season of 1976 gets underway there seems to be no end to the paparazzi and press coverage; not only for the races but, more interestingly, the drivers, their personal lives and the never-ending need for stories, be-it Lauda’s recovery from his accident or Hunt’s marriage breakdown and playboy lifestyle. The racing sequences themselves are brilliantly realised and, given the film’s relatively modest budget, thoroughly immersive. Rush concentrates only on the key elements of the races which gives the film breathing space to depict the characters’ rivalry off-track. Careful and tight use of editing ensures cuts between close-ups of exhausts, spinning tyres and sparking engine components heighten the realism but also add to the energy which, at times, has an almost rhythmic manner to it – motor racing is the new rock ‘n’ roll. So elements of hyperfast point-of view camerawork works to help induce adrenaline in the viewer as much as the contenders but never resorts to confining the story simply to car action sequences.
A fascinating look at the lives of two very different, but equally determined characters, this mid-budget, commercially viable sports film from an Oscar winning director is well worth a look.