You’d think Formula One would be fertile ground for filmmakers: Larger-than-life characters, brinkmanship, mortal risk and megabucks reward, glamour, tears, thrilling chase scenes, shagging aplenty, and technology which would put science fiction to shame. Yet the racing section of the video store remains the smallest of all, picked over only by petrolheads.
Capturing any sports film in two hours can be difficult particularly if you’re dealing with a whole championship arc, and fiction-based racing films tend to be long-winded (Grand Prix), two-dimensional (Le Mans) or comically fanciful (Driven). In sports, and particularly Formula One, however, fact is often stranger than fiction. Were Rush – the tale of James Hunt and Niki Lauda – not based on a true story, we would never believe it.
These two contrasting characters were made for Hollywood; Hunt’s sex appeal and devil-may-care attitude and Lauda’s controlling, detail obsessed character and determination highlighting both sides of what Formula One is all about.
Normally a film will have a hero and a villain. Initially the Austrian appears to be the latter – unlike Hunt, he’s not a people person – but as the film progresses, and Lauda suffers his accident at the Nurburgring, he becomes the emotional centre of the film and come the final race in Fuji you find yourself rooting for both of them.
Daniel Brühl’s (Inglorious Basterds) Lauda is worthy of major awards. He is indistinguishable from the real thing. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) had a trickier job when it came to Hunt because, unlike Brühl who spoke regularly to Niki throughout the process and stayed with him in Vienna ahead of filming, James is no longer with us. Watching interview footage is all Chris had to go on. That, and the recollections of former colleagues.
I spoke with James’ family earlier this year, after a private screening of the film, and although they loved it they thought Hemsworth lacked the driver’s easy charm and sexual magnetism. From my point of view, it was a very solid performance with plenty of brio.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) has done a stunning job with the racing scenes, which several F1 drivers have commented upon as being very realistic. We’re used to seeing multi in-car cameras, so the fact this movie manages to get the heart racing like it’s the first time we’ve ever been on-board is a testament to the cinematographer and editor. Anoraks will note that some scenes which are meant to take place at such-and-such a track were actually done at Brands Hatch, but it did nothing to temper my enjoyment, and overall CGI is used to great effect to recreate other race tracks in their retro finery.
All of this rousing, dynamic action seems at odds with a Ron Howard movie, a director whose post-Apollo 13 projects could often be accused of being static and/or bland. On this occasion he surprises with verve and colour.
Lauda’s recovery, including a scene where his lungs are vacuum cleaned, are uncomfortable viewing but moving, and these are perhaps the most lingering visuals in the film.
It’s actually the moments away from the track that I savored the most, particularly seeing Lauda’s life away from F1 – which is less well documented than Hunt’s – and his relationship with then-wife Marlene (whose portrayal by Alexandra Maria Lara, I’m told by people that know the real Marlene, is a very accurate).
Brühl has the ability to make unpleasant characters likeable, as he did playing Nazi officer Fredrick Zoller in Inglorious Basterds. There’s a funny scene where Marlene tries to thumb a lift from some Italian boy racers, but it’s Niki they stop for and beg him to take their keys and drive. At this point, having just met Niki, Marlene had no idea he’s an F1 driver and refuses to believe this reticent, rat-faced creature could be an international superstar… until he puts his foot down. It’s at this point Lauda seems more human and, in turn, a more worthy adversary for the charming Brit when it comes to our affections.
These moments are down to the skill of writer Peter Morgan, who has a knack for taking well-known public events and re-imagining them with drama and conversation off to the side that cinema-goers were never privy to before: See The Queen and Frost/Nixon.
It’s these elements that make the film entertaining, whether you’ve never seen a grand prix before or you were there watching from the pits in ’76. Finally, we have a racing movie that can be enjoyed by people who aren’t ‘bobble-hats’. It just so happens, it’s by far the best racing movie ever. The bar was set low before, but now Rush puts it very high.