"Every year, two of us die."
In the 1970s, as Formula One drags itself out of its 'killer years', two men with diametrically opposed attitudes compete for the World Championship.
Okay, I'll confess; I was totally biased in favour of this movie going in. I'm obsessed with Formula One (my earliest childhood ambition was 'to be a racing-car driver', which in the UK means Formula One; we don't do NASCAR) and I'm obsessed with Daniel Brühl, who plays Niki Lauda (have been since Goodbye Lenin). On top of that, this movie also stars Thor, a.k.a. Captain Kirk Sr, who isn't exactly hard on the eyes. So honestly, this movie would have had to be really, really bad for me not to like it.
But! You don't have to be obsessed with men driving little boxes on wheels very quickly round Europe (and Japan) to enjoy this movie, because it's as much about a confrontation between two very different people as it is about the need for speed. Writer Peter Morgan's previous work includes British TV movie The Deal (a fictionalized drama outlining a supposed deal between ex Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Two People With Extreme Personalities Butt Heads is clearly a favourite theme of his, and Formula One's 1976 season offers the perfect showcase for such a story, in the rivalry between British McLaren driver James Hunt and Austrian Ferrari driver Nikki Lauda.
There are two ways to do well in F1; you can calculate your every move, working out exactly how many points you need from each race to win the championship and exactly how many risks to take in the process, never forgetting to report any slight infraction of the rules on the part of your rivals; or you can just go for it, work on instinct and, well, drive really fast. Hunt (instinctive) and Lauda (calculating) embodied this difference, and it extended to their personalities as well, Hunt an alcoholic, sex-mad party animal proclaiming sex to be the 'breakfast of champions,' Lauda quiet and socially awkward.They provide the perfect material for Morgan's study in clashing lifestyles.
Of course, having said that, this is also a movie about racing, and the race sequences are as adrenalin-fueled as you'd expect. As a fan of the sport, I have to confess, I'd hoped for a little more actual racing; the first two thirds of the season get about as much attention as the Quidditch World Cup did in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It would have been nice to see a bit more of the cars in action - though I may be holding the film to an impossible standard here, since I'm inevitably comparing it to Senna, in which we saw entire laps from the in-car camera, something it's much harder and more expensive to do in a fictionalized re-enactment than in a documentary that can use real footage. Still, I would have cut back on the story of Hunt's marriage a bit, which is too truncated to ring true (it's implied that his wife leaves because he drinks too much... but she left for Richard Burton. Hmm), and included a bit more racing in the racing movie.
Once we get to the dramatic crux of the film at Germany's Nürburgring, however, the races themselves start to come to the fore, and we see the German, Italian and Japanese grands prix in a bit more detail. In some ways, as the story gets into its dramatic concluding third, being a fan is something of a disadvantage; shocking, dramatic sequences and images are a bit lost on me because I know every detail of that season and I see images of it all the time. It's a bit like watching a movie after you've read the book and just waiting for all the bits to remember to come up. If you don't know much about F1, I'd encourage you not to find out anything about it before you go in - don't even Google Hunt or Lauda - it'll make the movie that much more exciting!
Given the setting, the movie is also interested in life and death, and in what drives someone to risk their life for something ultimately meaningless, if lucrative. It's a common complaint among F1 fans that the sport isn't as exciting that it used to be, that it was better back in the days when the cars were simpler, the rules were simpler and the drivers were slightly more suicidally bonkers. There's a certain truth to that, perhaps, but it came at a cost. In the end, Rush admires the joie de vivre and particular sort of adventurer-bravery that makes anyone do this in the first place, but it also reflects on the idea that maybe it's not so bad to draw a line either; maybe, in the end, it isn't worth your life. Neither attitude is praised or condemned; they're just compared.
Ultimately, this film hinges on two things; the quality of the effects on the racing sequences and more importantly, the actors. Both are brilliant. Brühl as Lauda has perhaps more to work with than Chris Hemsworth as Hunt, since Hunt is portrayed more or less straightforwardly as a thrill-seeking playboy, whereas Lauda is written as a more complex and fascinating character. He also has the advantage that, with the aid of some false teeth and '70s mop hair, he's the spitting image of Lauda, whereas Hemsworth, though not completely dissimilar from Hunt, ultimately... looks like Thor. Both are great, though, backed by an equally excellent supporting cast, and while it took a while before we got to the really intense racing sequences, they were worth waiting for. Exhilarating stuff.
Notes and Quotes
- F1 is still a massively male-dominated sport, and aside from Alexandra Maria Lara (who does a great job with a part that mostly consists of looking affectionate/concerned) there's not much for any of the actresses to get their teeth into here. Part of me wants to take umbrage at the sexism of the whole thing, but honestly (apart from a brief implication that your marriage must be in trouble if your wife is away doing her own job instead of standing by the track supporting yours, which grated a bit), most of it is just an accurate depiction of the subject matter. I want to object that women like fast cars as much as men, but it's a male-dominated sport; I want to object to the implication that women find testosterone-fuelled maniacs who drive really fast irresistible, but since several F1 drivers could have me in a heartbeat if they wanted, probably shouldn't...
- Aside from quick references to deciding whether to go on 'wet' tyres (for heavy rain) or not, technical details surrounding the races featured are kept to a minimum, which I thought was a shame (Senna showed that it is possible to explain these things quickly and in an interesting way) but which is probably a relief to non-F1 fans!
- Lauda and Hunt weren't nearly as antagonistic in real life as they're portrayed here; they were professional rivals, but off-track they were friends. If you happen to know this, it can be a bit distracting, as the film really does play up the idea that they didn't get on, but the movie's fictional version works well enough on its own terms.
- I would not recommend watching this film while eating. You'll see why.
- I've been trying to avoid spoiling this for anyone not familiar with the story, though obviously two minutes on Wikipedia can tell you the whole thing if you want! That's also why I'm going easy on the 'quotes' section (though the trailer gives most of the plot away anyway) but I will highlight this one:
Lauda: Happiness is the enemy.
It didn't exactly have to work hard to win me over, but I think non-F1/Daniel Brühl obsessives will enjoy this too. It's certainly the best movie I've seen since Warm Bodies back in February. Four out of four tiny, speedy death traps.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.