Now here’s an odd thing: I find F1 racing dull and contrived, certainly too boring to sit watching for hours, and correspondingly most fictional movies about motor racing have turned out a bit of a turn-off for me, including Le Mans – despite the presence of the great Steve McQueen. Almost all movies about car racing have failed to capture my imagination, and yet… I found the documentary Senna riveting, probably because it was in essence a human tale and tragedy, and the intense and burning rivalry between two giants of the sport, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
So the buzz about Rush, the biopic following the rivalry between the late James Hunt and the very much alive Niki Lauda in the 1976 F1 season (the year I was following the great Peter Collins to the World Speedway Championship), left me with mixed feelings. The ingredients sound promising enough, such that Total Film is quoted as describing the movie as “an adrenaline-fuelled triumph” with the award of 5 stars, no less.
Director is Ron Howard, a sound choice and a master storyteller with a string of successes behind him including another “technical” true life story in Apollo 13. Howard clearly worked on the look and feel to give a really authentic effect, down to the right cars and machinery, pit lane manoeuvres, the tracks and action. The impression of speed and motion works very well, possibly achieved by under-cranking the camera to make the action appear faster. All the tricks of the trade are in evidence – the multiplicity of angles, the jerky shots, the high octane racing, the crash scenes, providing the adrenaline quoted above.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl play the principle protagonists, two young actors with a keen following, though the latter has perhaps the greater background in heavyweight roles (Hemsworth seems to have been brought up on a diet of soap opera and superheroes.) Both bear a respectable resemblance to their real life counterparts, though I was much more interested to see whether they could really get under the skin – of which more anon.
The point about the “grudge” story is that Hunt and Lauda were chalk and cheese, which is how they would have been written if this were an entirely fictional tale. Lauda was always the consummate pro, arrogant, meticulous and precise, measuring every decision by the risks and playing the percentages every time. Lauda came from a wealthy and aristocratic background but eschewed the family money, though he could not stay away from the higher social echelons that clung to F1 like bees around the honey pot.
By contrast Hunt was the rich boy who worked with British aristocrats like Lord Hesketh and lived the lifestyle to the full. A true playboy, Hunt was into wine, women and song, though perhaps sex and drugs and rock and roll would be a better cliché? Certainly the wine and women are much in evidence here, particularly his slightly fiery relationship with wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde), later leaving him to become the last wife of Richard Burton, but his style was always to take chances and lose a few along the way.
The first half of the film sets the scene for 1976, the early encounters between the two suggesting each was the foremost rival – which is certainly not as I remember it but which suits the film’s dramatic purposes. Lauda, having already given BRM an ultimatum, switches to Ferrari and tells them their car is a pile of shit. Hesketh goes broke so Hunt gets a drive with a reluctant McLaren, then the gloves are off.
Good start by Hunt, then disqualification, later reversed – but by then the momentum and a huge lead is with Lauda. Cue the Nürburgring on a wet track: Lauda calls for the race to be cancelled, Hunt disagrees. Hunt takes the lead, Lauda chases hard but the car breaks, he skids and a fireball erupts. Incredibly, Lauda is engulfed in flames and suffers appalling burns to his face and lungs but lives. He has to go through weeks in hospital and the agony of having liquid fuel siphoned from his lungs, but watching Hunt win more GPs and get back to within striking distance in the Championship spurs on Lauda to come back from the grave and suffers agonies putting on his helmet in order to drive again. Against all odds, Lauda returns and scores a death-defying 4th place as Hunt’s car sits by the track pouring smoke.
So to the Japanese GP, the final race – Lauda leading by 3 points and the rain hammering harder than ever. Whether the fear catches up or, as he claims, he is just calculating risks, Lauda retires from the race stating that it is too dangerous. Hunt has to drive through the most appalling conditions. Much confusion. Hunt thinks he has come 5th, but the official result declares him to be 3rd and to have won the world title by a gnat’s whisker. Celebrations begin, Hunt is the champ though Lauda goes on to win two more world titles and to fly jets. Hunt lives life to the full, takes up broadcasting, but dies of a heart attack at 45. RIP and amen.
This sounds, and is, dramatic, but there is a fundamental weakness at its heart. It is this: the courage of Niki Lauda in returning to the track is really the dramatic highlight and the focus of audience sympathy. As played, I didn’t feel a shred of longing for Hunt to win, even despite knowing what happened in reality – it was as if the moral victory had long since been won by the Austrian; Hunt won the race, won the Championship, but ultimately lost the prize.
And to me at least, Brühl wins the race by getting closest to the inner workings of Lauda, while Hemsworth seems to imply a vacuum within Hunt. What drove the man seems in Hemsworth’s version of events to be a moment of glory, a glug of champagne and more sexy women fighting to fuck him. I didn’t come away with any insight, any sense of the inner man, though maybe there wasn’t one? You get the impression that like Peter Sellers reputedly was behind the mask of his characters, James Hunt was either surface deep or that proving himself once was enough, as Lauda claims at the end of the movie.
The other factor I don’t especially like about real life movies that go through a series of events on the assumption that the audience knows nothing is that if you did follow the events in question you’re left with very little emotion or feeling beyond a slight anticlimax – a shame indeed, given how close the race really was in practice. By comparison, Senna provides shock and awe in equal measure, but then you can never forget Rush is a fictionalised adaptation of the facts.
But this is churlish, since what the film does is reconstruct beautifully and provide a clear and gripping narrative, plus lots of shots of Hunt in bed with attractive ladies. Maybe that is worth seeing on its own? At any rate, I can’t imagine the subject being covered any more effectively, and I’m happy to state that this is as close as it will ever come to making F1 on screen authentic and exciting.