Monday 2 September 2013

Rush Review - 1976 and all that

If history is any sort of guide, then making a motor racing film is a perilous task. The pitfalls are many and considerable, perhaps even obvious, but no less hard to avoid for that. The main ones include that one has to come up with something plausible and accurate to the motor racing aficionado, but entertaining enough to transcend the boundaries and appeal to more of a mass market. If it's based on actual events then you're even more constrained, as the same motor sport nerds will delight in pointing out any major departures from what actually happened. It's also necessary to both create convincing on-track scenes as well as have a compelling off-track plot.

And achieving these seems easier said than done. Some have tried, but arguably none have ticked all of the boxes. John Frakenheimer's Grand Prix from 1966 emphatically ticks the on-track footage box, which was wonderful, but its plot away from the track is rather porous (though perhaps not quite as bad as some like to claim). Le Mans of 1971 equally has wonderful and convincing footage, but hardly an off-track plot at all. Driven fails on both counts, and thus the less that is said about it the better. While Senna got around many of the problems (such as those of realism and creating convincing action) by being a documentary which used original footage from on and off the track as well as, let's be frank, carried a narrative that only really gave one side of that particular story.

Thus, Ron Howard's Rush - tracking the James Hunt/Niki Lauda rivalry in the 1976 F1 season - had much to contend with, lots of traps to fall into. But, do you know what? He's only gone and nailed it. It could well be that motor sport now has a new number one film ever. Certainly it has its leading non-documentary.

Of course, Howard to some extent started with a few advantages. The 1976 season that Rush bases itself around was one that hardly needed embellishment by Hollywood. It was an age long before PR had taken its firm hold on the sport: the F1 pilot was charismatic, outspoken, swashbuckling. The styles of the age were expressive and distinctive. The sport was dangerous; death at races was a common feature, but also high living, excess and sex seemed to follow the sport and its protagonists around.

And this particular year featured two championship rivals who as a pairing could have been contrasting personas straight out of the mind of a Hollywood director: Niki Lauda - clipped, brusque, intense, anti-social, almost computer-like. And James Hunt - with a prodigious talent, but also notoriously wayward, outlandish, a playboy. Lauda was ultra-professional, ultra-committed, masterful on the technical aspect; Hunt's talent by contrast was instinctive, he was a plug-in-and-go driver with a devil-may-care attitude. About the only thing they had in common was being breathtakingly good at what they did, and having come through the junior ranks and their formative years in F1 almost together, that 1976 year had them converge at the sport's pinnacle, chasing down that year's world title which was decided at the very last, and amid something akin to a deluge...

James Hunt, in the McLaren M23, pressing on the Fuji rain
And of course, the season featured most infamously a harrowing and fiery accident for Lauda at the Nurburgring, which not only did he survive against all odds and plausibilty, as well as by heroic rescue by some of his fellow drivers, he was back on racing again at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, still a long way from healed, just six weeks later in order to defend his crown. Without exaggeration it was one of the most courageous acts witnessed in any sport ever.

But all of this absolutely should not detract from what Howard and everyone else involved in the film has achieved. On the most challenging of territories, with Rush they have triumphed. Motor sport fans will adore it, but I reckon that, a lot like the Senna film, it has a very good chance of transcending the sport's aficionados also.

The film's plot is tight and pacy. The casting is spot on and the performances are wonderful. The dialogue in Peter Morgan's script is sharp as well as faithful to the characters portrayed. The soundtrack is excellent. The film, both away from the track and most-impressively on-track, looks fantastic, and particularly in the latter case is completely convincing, even in cases such as the old Nurburgring pit straight and the original Interlagos and Kyalami, which themselves are now, in the real world, long gone. Quite how they managed to achieve this is anyone's guess.

But of course, Rush is all about Lauda and Hunt, and the film emphatically does not let us down here either. Both actors - Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda - get their characters spot on, in terms of voice, manner and everything else, both aided also by a script that captures the pair perfectly. But even of the two it is Brühl who steals the show. While a lot of the film's build up has focussed on the character of Hunt, Rush if anything is in fact more about Lauda (indeed the Lauda character is the film's narrator). And Brühl steps up to the mark, not so much to play the great Austrian as to embody him in every way. Long before the end of the film you've lost sight of the fact that it's not actually Niki Lauda himself that you're staring up at on the screen.

Daniel Brühl, playing Niki Lauda, is the star of the show
I've heard it said that Niki Lauda loves the film. It's easy to see why.

And unlike in Senna, the story presented in Rush is not one-sided. It does not present either Hunt or Lauda as the good guy or as the bad. Both are shown to be flawed, far from perfect. But ultimately that both are heroic figures very much shines through.

Broadly the story starts in 1970 at Crystal Palace, when Hunt and Lauda encounter each other for the first time - metaphorically and literally - in an F3 race. They dominate proceedings, but collide, which allowed Hunt to win. After the race they clash again, verbally this time, and the rivalry is thus in place.

Then, via astonishing technical nous and helped by a bank loan (the pay driver is not a new thing), Lauda gets ahead of Hunt in the career stakes, to Ferrari via BRM, and thus to the world championship, while at the same time Hunt continues to struggle with the happy-go-lucky but modestly-resourced Hesketh outfit. And on the evening after claiming his debut crown in 1975 Lauda admonishes Hunt for his attitude to the job. Suitably chastened Hunt resolves to beat Lauda the next year, the 1976 season, only for his Hesketh squad collapse underneath him. But there awaits a stroke of massive fortune for him, as a vacancy at McLaren materialises, which after some deliberation is filled by Hunt. And the scene is therefore set.

It is a film that at times will make you laugh out loud, but also at times will firmly tug on your emotions. And in terms of the 1976 season's and the film's central act, Rush gets it exactly right. Lauda's Nurburgring accident as well as its aftermath and his recovery back to the track is agonising, realistic and faithful, but also avoids feeling gratuitous or designed solely to shock. Furthermore, the film's final sequence is genuinely moving.

Niki Lauda works his technical magic on the BRM
There is the odd piece of dramatic licence in there, departures from what actually happened, presumably so that the narrative does not threaten to become too corkscrew for the non-racing sport fan within a two-hour film - perhaps an inevitable consequence of 'Hollywood treatment'. For example, in 1973 at Watkins Glen Lauda asks Hunt 'how does it feel to be at the back?' in a race wherein, in actuality, the Englishman finished a close second (and was way ahead of Lauda). The film claims that Lauda clinched the title at the same venue two years later (he clinched it at Monza) and did so after a race-long battle with Hunt (which never happened). I further find it hard to believe that Hunt, literally, discovered that Lauda had signed for Ferrari while he was posing for his wedding photos, or that Alastair Caldwell told Hunt that he had no chance of winning the championship as he was about to return to the Fuji title showdown race after his late tyre change. And the geeks will enjoy pointing out that much of the on-circuit action footage - purporting to be at tracks as diverse as Paul Ricard, Fiorano, Monza and Fuji - has conspicuously been filmed at Brands Hatch.

The biggest departure from what actually happened though is that the film portrays Hunt and Lauda on the way up in their careers having a cold, and often rather poisonous, relationship, before the events of the Nurburgring and its aftermath in 1976 brought them together. 'Two disparate characters who don't get along initially learning to like and respect each other in adversity' is broadly speaking the film's plot arc. In fact, Hunt and Lauda were good friends from an early stage of their careers, indeed they shared a flat for a while. Though to be fair the film ends with Lauda talking of the pair's mutual respect and friendship.

But given everything it seems rather carping to draw undue attention to such things. The film is as faithful to real-life events as could have been expected in the circumstances and constraints that I mentioned, perhaps more so. Certainly in terms of following actual events, and in their correct chronology, particularly those of 1976 itself, it rarely misses a beat. Same goes for its portrayal of 1970s F1 as it was more generally. And the film doesn't lose any of its dramatic impact as a result. Indeed, far from hamming up the controversy of the 1976 year, some sources of it were in fact missed, such as that Hunt's disqualification from the British Grand Prix, and his being sent to the back of the grid at Monza, are not covered at all.

For the motor sport fan there is plenty, and they will love the film's doting attention to detail, right down to Enzo Ferrari sitting by the side of the Fiorano track as his cars circulated, devouring a newspaper in that way he used to do. Many figures of F1's past are here: Lord Alexander Hesketh, Anthony 'Bubbles' Horsley, Harvey Postlethwaite, Louis Stanley, Clay Regazzoni, Teddy Mayer and Alastair Caldwell, among others. Though I think not including a bespectacled, eccentric Mauro Forghieri figure was a bit of a missed opportunity, but perhaps that's just me.

If you are a motor sport fan I think you should go and see this film. And, while it's hard for me to empathise, if you're not a motor sport fan I think you should go and see this film. The motor sport fan will adore it and find it convincing, while there is more than enough in Rush to keep the non-motor sport fan gripped too. It is a work that has achieved what was previously thought impossible; a film that took the most difficult path and emerged on the other side with something magnificent. Ron Howard - take a bow.

Rush is out in UK cinemas on 13 September. If you want to find out where the nearest cinema is to you that's showing Rush, as well as pre-order your tickets, you can via the film's Facebook page here.


  1. Aye... Rush down to your cinema to see it.

  2. I agree with your review. Brühl arguably steals the movie: he sounds exactly like Lauda, in German and English; Zimmer’s score is very serviceable and does its job efficiently; and the factual errors are relatively fewer than other “true stories” concocted by Hollywood. The racing cars are convincing, though off the track, a Lincoln limousine at the end is from the 1980s. Lauda did let his hair down post-race and did so with Hunt, but to show this might have decreased the “rivalry” that the movie was trying to portray. I thought Stephen Mangan’s (an actor I quite like) Alistair Caldwell was the only one that didn’t quite look or sound quite right.

    Rush was certainly more enjoyable than Grand Prix or Le Mans—I might have a new favourite now.