It would have been easy for Hollywood to get this film wrong. The superficial, headline-grabbing story of James Hunt, the renegade British public schoolboy turned Formula One playboy versus Niki Lauda, the analytical, detail-obsessed Austrian is so compelling.
And the true story of the season around which Rush builds its narrative – the 1976 F1 world championship – is a gift to any filmmaker. At a time when every year the drivers could expect one of their number to be involved in a fatal accident, this particular season is perhaps more dramatic than any. The Austrian takes an early, commanding points lead before a spectacular, and fiery, mid-season crash that takes him from race seat to hospital bed and allows Hunt to close the gap. Then, miraculously, Lauda not only survives but also launches a heroic battle to regain his health, and his seat at Ferrari. Without adding any spoilers for those who aren’t fans of the sport, the denouement in ’76 was a gripping showdown at the final race of the season.
But there’s more to the story than the legend, and it’s to the credit of Ron Howard and Peter Morgan, director and writer respectively of Rush, the new big-screen adaptation of those events, that they’ve looked beyond the headlines. Scratch below the surface and we find the truth – Lauda and Hunt were rivals, yes, but they always respected each other, both as people and as professional racers.
Morgan and Howard’s previous collaboration, Frost/Nixon, is a good touchstone for the Rush formula – two strong, opposing characters go up against each other in a high stakes game of cat and mouse. And just with Frost/Nixon the sense of drama is over-heightened (“Happiness is the enemy – it weakens you,” says Lauda at one point), as is Hunt’s penchant for binge-drinking and late-night liaisons with the opposite sex, while key details that would detract from the perfect chalk versus cheese narrative have been omitted. In real life Hunt and Lauda shared a flat for a time in the early days of their careers, for example, and Hunt was a remarkably focused individual in his early racing career while Lauda, conversely, has said he wasn’t quite the machine-like goody-goody that he is portrayed to be on screen.
But despite these standard Hollywood biopic tactics, Howard does manage to sneak in a few signs that there was an underlying mutual respect. Spot the similarities between the two drivers – both come from privileged backgrounds yet had to struggle to find their way into F1 without help from their families, while both have no problem speaking their mind. The final scene, while a little hackneyed, makes their complex relationship explicit.
Finding a man to play James Hunt was no easy task. According to reports, casting for the role was unusually lengthy, to the point where the whole project was beginning to look untenable. Finally, a script was sent to Chris Hemsworth, an Australian who made his name in soap Home and Awaybefore breaking into the Hollywood big time wielding a mythical hammer in Marvel comics’ big-screen adaptation Thor. In a story that echoes the fight of the character he would go on to play, Hemsworth had to fight for his place in the film; after being unable to attend the casting session he filmed his own casting tape and sent it off by courier the same day.
It did the job and the producers snapped up Hemsworth, whose resulting performance is both confident and measured as he captures Hunt’s boisterous exuberance but also the innate inner-turmoil and focus of his character. Hemsworth, who also lost 33lb to go from God-like physique to the more slender frame of a professional race driver even manages a pretty decent public school accent.
It was much easier to cast Daniel Brühl, who arguably manages an even finer performance as Lauda, capturing the ruthless determinism that shaped his early career but also helped his recovery after the near fatal accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix. For race fans, several scenes may stand out from the film, most of which involve Brühl. During Lauda’s first test for Ferrari, for example, at which he bluntly (and unadvisedly, given the presence of Enzo Ferrari himself), informs the engineer that the car is a “s***box”. Another is post-’76 accident, as Lauda has liquid build-up vacuumed from his heat-scorched lungs via a long metal probe down the throat – a wince-inducing moment, almost more unpleasant than watching the accident itself. “Do it again,” Lauda pleads, while watching TV footage of Hunt racking up championship points. Lauda’s trauma in these moments is remarkably affecting.
Equally impressive is the aesthetic of Rush, which expertly recreates the visual tone of the 1970s and crafts looming storm clouds over the critical scenes, literally in the case of the final, championship-deciding race at Suzuka. The cars deserve a mention, too – many originals were used but replicas were substituted for the big accidents, Howard choosing to perform as much action as possible “in-camera” rather than via computer-generated imagery. Heavier use of CGI would have been easier, but at the expense of the realism required to illustrate such a visceral and significant battle of minds and metal.
Rush is not a perfect motor racing film but it is a remarkably affecting and evocative piece of cinema that dares to scratch below the surface of the Hunt/Lauda legend, and succeeds.
Rush opens at cinemas nationwide on September 13.
Read our exclusive insight from Formula Ford rival Tony Dron and Niki Lauda himself here
Published September 03, 2013Tweet