Rush

Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 February

 

 

Enzo Ferrari born, 1898

On this day in 1898, Enzo Anselmo Ferrari was born. The man who would later be known as Il Commendatore, founder and leader of the Ferrari racing team (and car manufacturer) was taken to a racing track as a kid and realised immediately that he wanted to be a driver. By the early 1920s he was Alfa Romeo’s test driver, and when the company decided to outsource their racing unit, it was Ferrari that ran it. He went solo during the Second World War, during which time Alfa paid him not to compete, and by the end of the war was ready with his first car, the game-changing 125, a two-seated GT car that became the basis for Ferrari’s first vehicle when the new fangled Formula 1 launched. Unlike other manufacturers, who see race cars as a testbed for road car production, Ferrari was never that interested in road cars, and saw them largely as a way of defraying the huge expense of racing. He stayed true to his first love, even after he sold 50 per cent of the company to Fiat in 1969, remaining totally in control of the racing side of things right up to his death in 1988, aged 90.

 

 

 

Rush (2013, dir: Ron Howard)

A thrilling, period-perfect and beautifully written film about the rivalry between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda, whose duelling on the track came to a head in the 1976 Formula 1 season. The fact that Rush exists at all, on this scale at least, must in large part be down to Senna, the 2010 documentary about the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost which had turned out to be a surprise hit. Formula 1 – a graveyard for film-makers since actor Steve McQueen busted himself with Le Mans – could sell cinema tickets it seemed. In the personalities of Hunt and Lauda director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan have chosen well. Hunt’s skills as a driver were debatable – he wasn’t called Hunt the Shunt for nothing – but he had flair and it can’t be denied that he was a good looking man. Cut to the two opening scene that set the tone for the whole film and we have Lauda in voiceover explaining that Formula 1 in the 1970s is deadly (“Each year 25 drivers line up on the start line for Formula 1. Each year, two of us die.”) Cut to Hunt standing in the doorway of a hospital accident room, racesuit unzipped to the waist, looking up through his eyelashes at a weak-kneed nurse like a Greek god out for a good time. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth, who nails the drawling British goodtime Charlie accent, while Daniel Brühl does the harder job of bottling Lauda, a tactician, a technician, a driving genius. Rush’s skill is to tell the story of that year – when Lauda crashed and literally burned, allowing Hunt a chance to steal the driver’s championship – without letting the facts get in the way of a good story. So we have the girls and the glory, the gladiatorial joust of driving at the edge of a car’s (and a human’s) abilities, and most of all the rivalry between two very different types of human beings – the grasshopper and the ant, as Aesop would have said. Who was the better driver? The film is generous to Hunt though it’s obvious that it was Lauda. It’s Ron Howard’s best film – big, thrilling, funny, intelligent, atmospheric and pretty much faultlessly made. And, having learnt the lesson from history, Howard doesn’t make the mistake of so many other race films – there isn’t actually that much track action.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, both perfect
  • 1970s hedonism perfectly conjured
  • Doesn’t shy away from the fact that F1 was a brutal, deadly sport
  • Olivia Wilde, just one among a standout cast

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rush – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Queen

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

8 February

 

 

Elizabeth II proclaimed queen of UK, 1952

On this day in 1952, Elizabeth II was proclaimed queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She had actually become queen two days earlier, on the death of her father, George VI, which she heard about while on a tour of Kenya. Proclamations were read out starting the next day. But according to time zone or geographical location, some parts of the new queen’s realm had not completed the formalities until the day after that. In keeping with protocol, the queen took different titles in different jurisdictions; in some she was also the head of the church and was accorded the title Defender of the Faith, an honour granted to Henry VIII by the Pope.

 

 

 

The Queen (2006, dir: Stephen Frears)

A film about the chaos caused by the death of Princess Diana in 2007 – or Diana, Princess of Wales as she was styled. That styling – the all-important comma in her title – is the axle on which this film turns. Was Diana, now divorced from her husband and a commoner by birth, royal at all? What was the protocol when someone of her status, if not rank, died? And imagine trying to make a movie about a topic that dry. But that’s what The Queen is – and in the shape of Elizabeth II we have a hard-liner in matters of protocol being weaned off the idea that she should stick to the letter of time-sanctified procedure and instead should accord Diana some of the outward displays – the flags at half mast, for instance – to show that her regal majesty was hurting too, like the countless thousands who had journeyed to the gates of Kensington Palace to lay flowers after the Princess’s untimely death. Did the queen bear Diana any personal animosity? The film does not go there. Instead it is a valiantly patriotic, almost forelock-tugging portrait of a monarch at a time of extreme duress taking time to swing towards the light. This traditionalism seems strange, considering that the film is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, neither of whose resumés marks them out as lace-ruffed courtiers (Frears’s democratic bona fides include My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things; Morgan has The Deal and at this point has just debuted the play Frost/Nixon, which would later become a film). But maybe Morgan and Frears are out to fell bigger beasts: the memory of Diana, and the monster of touchy-feeliness – not to mention the rank smelling mob – that manifested themselves when she died prematurely. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen, cool but not cold, devoted to her country, iron-bound by duty. Michael Sheen deserved one for his Tony Blair, the prime minister who spoke of “the people’s princess” and then had to work hard behind the scenes to persuade the royal family that the right way wasn’t necessarily the proper way to handle her death. Other roles are less laudable – James Cromwell is struggling as the prickly Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband, Sylvia Syms is a fun, pantomime Queen Mother. Morgan’s intelligent screenplay handles the issue carefully, and works hard to avoid the charge of exposition by royal appointment. And he manages it beautifully. When the film came out, The Queen not signified that a sticky moment in the queen’s long reign had been negotiated, it confirmed the monarch as one of the great survivors.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Peter Morgan’s exemplary script
  • Helen Mirren’s tonally perfect performance
  • Michael Sheen’s second of three performances as Tony Blair
  • An honourable though not slavish view of the events

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Frost/Nixon

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 November

 

 

Richard Nixon wins the presidency, 1968

On this day in 1968, it was announced that Richard Milhous Nixon had become President-elect of the USA, having beaten Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey by 43.4% of the popular vote to 42.7%. Coming a distant third was American Independent candidate George Wallace with 13.5%. It was Nixon’s second attempt at the presidency, having been beaten by John F Kennedy in 1960. It was the first time a Republican had won in 12 years and marked a watershed in American politics, the broad consensus of the New Deal Coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt having held sway for the previous 36 years (Dwight Eisenhower’s stints as presidents notwithstanding). Nixon was a lucky man, and knew it. It had been widely assumed that incumbent president Lyndon Johnson would run again, though sentiment against the Vietnam war had badly hurt him and the arrival of two Democrat rivals, first Eugene McCarthy later Robert Kennedy, encouraged him, mindful of the fact that his heart wasn’t strong, to quit. Nixon campaigned on a law and order ticket and vowed to end conscription, which he hoped would take the heat out of the anti-War movement. He also appears to have made secret overtures to the South Vietnamese government, pointing out to them that if the upcoming Paris peace talks were to fail, then his incoming government would secure a peace much more favourable to the South, an act incumbent president Johnson (whose party stood most to gain from the talks) described as “treason”. Well, Nixon wasn’t called “Tricky Dick” for nothing.

 

 

Frost/Nixon (2008, dir: Ron Howard)

A fictionalised film about the legendary series of interviews in 1977 between David Frost, a forensic interviewer of immense skill and a huge amount of charm, and Richard Nixon, a disgraced president so demonised that his legend preceded him, accompanied by smells of sulphur and wisps of smoke. Peter Morgan’s screenplay for Frost/Nixon isn’t as magisterial as his one for Rush – another “rivals” film – but it gets to the nub of the matter at hand in similarly elegant style. This film, supposedly about the gladiatorial interviews between the two men, is based on Frost’s book, I Gave Them a Sword, from which Morgan developed the original stage play and is, no surprise, actually more about Frost than Nixon, how David brought down Goliath, you could say. Except that Nixon was already down, of course. And here’s where the acting comes in. Michael Sheen is all smiling bonhomie, upstart charm and nervous ticks as the youngish Brit Frost on the make, a man who has mortgaged his life to gain what he hopes is transformative access to a key figure of the late 20th century, perhaps the better to finance a playboy lifestyle. Frank Langella’s role is trickier and, playing a wily operator with flashes of vulnerability showing through, Langella seems at first to be overacting, over-blustering, but that’s because he needs to get us in our seats, comfortable, acclimatised to Nixon as a man rather than a myth. And once Langella has done that, we’re off, into the film’s most deeply satisfying part, as the young buck questions the old pro, while each man’s team on the sidelines register whether a point has gone to one or the other. And look at the acting quality in those teams – Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones. As for the famous “apology” that Frost is said to have wrung from Nixon for misleading the American people etc, it isn’t half as fulsome as is often claimed, but it is still fairly remarkable, considering who it’s coming from.

Why Watch?

 

  • “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” – Nixon’s view of the Constitution
  • Langella had already won a Tony for his stage performance as Nixon
  • It’s Langella/Sheen in the battle of the consummate professionals
  • Part of the ongoing project to clean up Tricky Dicky

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Frost/Nixon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Rush

Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the pits

 

 

 

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

 

 

Rush – Watch it or buy it at Amazon