Movies about racing are gambles, and generally the odds aren’t in the director’s or producers’ favor. Steve McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’ is a prime example, loved by car guys and often near the top of their pantheon of car films – right up there with Claude Lelouche’s ‘Rendezvous’ – it was a box office flop. Outside of Frankenheimer’s ‘Grand Prix’, which was a fabulous visual treat – filmed in Cinemascope – there haven’t been many racing oriented movies that payoff.
And it is against that history that Ron Howard has released ‘Rush’, the tale of two drivers, Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and the 1976 Grand Prix season. So why will this film succeed when so many other racing films have failed? There are a few reasons that ‘Rush’ has a shot at being a huge hit.
First, the cars are not the stars. In fact they are mere vehicles with which to flesh out the story. There are few technical details, no delving into the arcane bits and pieces of the cars and their functioning. Other than a short plug of dialogue early, in order to establish Lauda’s engineering bona fides, the technical aspects of the cars are ignored. The six wheel Tyrrells show up in the film with no explanation for the four small front wheels. And that is good – too much engineering and you lose half of the audience (or more, to be honest).
Second, the story – the real story – is fantastic. The tale of two flawed personalities forced together in competition is tailor made for the screen and Lauda and Hunt are as polar opposite as can be imagined. It was a fierce rivalry – an animosity even – that had strong roots and a world stage to play upon. The story in its raw form is just an excellent starting point for further exploration.
Third, for a two hour movie the pacing of ‘Rush’ is superb, little to no dips in the story line. While compressing and modifying the actual events to fit the screen, it still remains true to the spirit of the events.
Fourth, the film is a visual treat. Forget the cars for a moment. There is a shot where Lord Hesketh explains to James Hunt that he cannot finance the Formula One team for the coming year. The shot was in the interior of Lord Hesketh’s mansion and it conveys the decline of old English money in a matter of seconds – it is a real treat. There is also a scene with Hunt in bed and it becomes apparent as the shot widens that there is three pair of feet in the bed. It was subtle but well done. The production values are excellent.
In the end though, it is the story and the deft portrayals of the protagonists that make this film. The supporting cast is good but Bruehl and Hemsworth shine as Lauda and Hunt. “Rush’ will be an unqualified success. How do I know? My wife accompanied me to the screening, she hates racing movies, and yet she liked ‘Rush’.