Wednesday, 2 October 2013


Hopscotch Films

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Tennis is my sport of choice and it is littered with great rivalries: McEnroe and Borg; Navratilova and Evert; Sampras and Agassi; Federer and Nadal. In most of those instances, the rivalry rarely extended off the court. Whilst happy to beat down on the other during a contest, they were just as likely to be the best of friends afterwards.

Not so James Hunt and Niki Lauda. In Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, there was no greater rivalry than that of Hunt and Lauda: the popular pretty boy Englishman and the super-serious Austrian coming up together through the ranks of the sport, and cultivating a genuine dislike for each other; fuelling their on-track performances and exciting the media and race-going public.

That rivalry came to a head in 1976 when tragedy would befall the defending F1 world champion, Lauda, and Hunt would have to prove that he was more than just a contender. It's this season that is the primary focus of Ron Howard's Rush, a terrifically enjoyable look at the world of F1 even for those who haven't the slightest regard for the sport (or, like me, don't really think it is a sport. Driving cars round and round real fast? Whatever!).

Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a man of charm and good looks; a ladies man with a penchant for fun. He also happened to be a very talented driver, albeit one with more ambition than drive. Lauda, on the other hand, was never the life of the party. Taking up the sport despite his wealthy family's protests, he bought his way onto the Ferrari team and immediately set about telling his new employers all that was wrong with their cars.

He was too honest to be popular and too focussed on winning to be interested in chasing women (though he does marry Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), following a proposal as romantic as an oil change). Lauda was dubbed 'The Rat' because of his prominent front teeth but even being compared to a rodent couldn't faze the Austrian; rats, after all, are intelligent and it requires more brain than brawn to win a car race.

Peter Morgan's screenplay divides its time equally between these two men of contrast, managing to make us care for both when the action turns to the track. And Howard literally puts you in the driver's seat: hurtling around race tracks in Monte Carlo and Tokyo, in dry heat and misty rains; where danger or possibly death awaits you at every sharp turn.

I'm not sure how much of these racing scenes involved CGI but they are convincing and thrilling, rev head or not (props to cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and editors, Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill). And whether or not you question their athleticism, you can't deny these men their courage (or foolhardiness).

As in the 2010 documentary Senna, about the brilliant but brief Formula 1 career of Argentinian driver, Ayrton Senna, who was killed mid-race doing what he loved, Rush never shies away from the reality that death is a F1 driver's constant companion (Hunt believing his proximity to death is part of his appeal to women).

And like that doco, Howard manages to make his film as accessible and thrilling to novice and fan alike. He's helped immensely by his two leads, perfectly cast as evidenced by actual footage of the two racers during the film's closing credits. Hemsworth proving he's more than just beefcake, and Bruhl making what should be a very unlikeable character truly admirable (and pipping his more famous co-star for the chequered flag in the process).

Perhaps there's something about the 1970s which brings out the best in Ron Howard? Apollo 13 (set in 1970) and Frost/Nixon (set in 1977) are arguably the director's best films, and Rush certainly deserves a place on the grid and in the director's Top 5.

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