Is Rush – about the rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt – Ron Howard’s best film yet? After those terrible Da Vinci Code films recently, made for who knows what favour to the studio, this might not seem like much of a claim. But let’s not forget that Howard made Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon.
If there’s one thing uniting those three films and Rush it’s that they’re all based firmly on real events. And yes, to bolster the argument, it’s necessary to forget about boxing drama Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe’s Rocky, also based on the life of a real man, but only of value to archaeologists of Hollywood cliché.
But back to Rush, which takes place in the 1970s, when Formula 1 was still genuinely dangerous – “Each year 25 of us line up at the start and each year two of us will die” intones Daniel Brühl’s Niki Lauda as the film gets going. And we’re introduced to the two men who are the twin poles of the film. James Hunt, the playboy, the swaggering cock known as Hunt the Shunt, for obvious reasons. And Niki Lauda, the tactician, the one who went to bed early while his fellow drivers partied, nicknamed, because of his prominent teeth, “the Rat”.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl play the drivers, Hemsworth excellent as the Englishman Hunt, perhaps a yah too far here and there in the accent, but his blond-god looks, the air of rich-boy self-assurance, the smell of danger because Hunt at some deep down level wants to win rather than live, Hemsworth has all that. And good though Hemsworth is, Daniel Brühl is even better as the Austrian Lauda, a far harder role to make sympathetic, the roundhead to Hunt’s cavalier.
The film follows them from first knockings at low-end Formula 3 meets to the defining season in both men’s careers, 1976. Formula 1 fans will already understand the significance of that year – the focus is firmly on the crash at the German Grand Prix when Lauda was horribly burned, an accident that nearly killed him and packed him off to hospital, where he stayed while his fellow drivers had the luxury of three Grand Prix without him.
Peter Morgan’s psychologically astute screenplay is a thing of wonder, so concise, so faithful to the facts and yet never getting bogged down in detail, but over this point it draws the thinnest of veils – there is absolutely no way that Hunt could have won the Drivers Championship that year, unless Lauda had crashed. Lauda was so far ahead that he could almost afford to lose three races. Indeed, he came back at Tokyo, the last race of the season, and was still in a position to win. And it is to Morgan’s credit that the actual story – the truth of the matter – is still discernible through the shifts of emphases necessary to make this look like a meeting of equals.
What actually happened I won’t say, though Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t rely on detailed knowledge of racing, or even a liking of the sport, to make the film work. Howard’s direction – lush here, urgent there – and the exquisite casting throw a layer of glamour and nostalgia over the events that effectively buffer us from odd moments of mayhem and gore. Olivia Wilde seems particularly in the 1970s groove as Suzy, the woman Hunt fell for in an instant, married even quicker, tired of almost as quickly. At which point he passed her on, with a sigh of relief, to Richard Burton. Christian McKay, so good as Orson Welles in the almost unseen Orson and Me, is similarly expansive here as team owner Lord Hesketh, the unconventional rich kid whose butler would serve champagne in the pits.
This is 1970s Formula 1 racing as a war between jousting knights of the track but also as a battle between sex and death. It’s a very very good film.
© Steve Morrissey 2013