Rush, Ron Howard’s latest film, explores the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two go for broke Formula 1 race car drivers who competed in the mid 1970’s. The filmmakers go to great lengths to seamlessly transport us back four decades, with careful crafting of locations, costumes and hairstyles. There is attention paid to every detail right down to the period logos of the iconic sponsor brands. Making period films (sorry, but the ’70’s now qualify as a period) requires a unique eye and keen observation for the vibe of the time. Howard has had considerable practice. Apollo 13, probably his crown jewel, forced him back even further in time. Frost/Nixon, another of my favorite Howard films was also about two vastly different personalities playing a cat and mouse game with extremely high personal stakes.
Hunt is British and played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor). Hemsworth sculpts his portrayal of Hunt as a playboy who lives in the moment and that moment is always about one thing and one thing only; driving. His reputation makes it difficult for him to “find a ride” after his primary backer makes a major miscalculation in his initial foray into F1. Eventually Hunt is taken on by the McLaren racing team. We are only allowed a glimpse or two into Hunt’s more introspective side. While preparing for a race he holds the wheel while lying on his back beside his car and visualizes each turn, how he will shift and when to dart through a fresh opening.
Niki Lauda is played by Daniel Brühl, a seasoned actor from Germany. If Hunt is the playboy, Lauda is the perfectionist and deeply analytical. Serious drivers are married to their cars and in Luada’s case it’s beyond an obsession. He knows engineering, physics and the composition of raw materials that make up a quicker machine. During a scene where Lauda hitches a ride with his future bride he critiques her car. He is able to to observe the fan belt is loose and one of the tire is low on air. How? Through his butt. God gave him an ok mind and a brilliant butt. He can feel a car. For Niki, the car is a living organism.
To bring the cars to life, Howard hired cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to go deep inside the back story. Mantle uses the equivalent of an electron microscope to penetrate the inner workings of an F1 car. Pistons flexing, torque bars shifting and tires blistering. He gives us an exploded view of the car being pushed to it’s limits.
Lauda’s superior car set-up and carefully calculated driving skills are rewarded with the most points on the F1 circuit. Hunt’s marriage dissolves but his desire to become world champion is emboldened. Lauda played the percentages. He was comfortable with a 20% risk, but no more. Hunt had no such scale and felt more risk mean higher reward. Not fame or money, but personal reward. More fuel for his hi-ocatane lifestyle.
On August 1, 1976 in Germany, Lauda’s Ferrari was into the second lap when it hit the wall, drifted back into the center of the track and was struck by another driver. His Formula car burst into flames, exposing him to searing heat for over eight seconds. His injuries were serious. A singed right ear and eyelids. Loss of hair and scorched lungs. His motivation to return to the driver’s seat was provided by a successful Hunt on the track. Hunt closed the points spread at an amazing pace, and so, Lauda made clear recovery decisions to get back to his ride. Repair my eyelids, yes. The scars on my head, I can wear a hat. And so he was back on the circuit well before anyone had expected.
My personal roots to cars and racing can be traced back to my childhood. A close uncle drove on the high-banked, dirt oval circuit and my father and I followed him around the midwest tracks until a crash ended his racing career. Another of my uncles was his mechanic and my father taught me how to perform nearly every maintenance necessary at that time to keep a car in tip top shape. Howard captures the primal aspects of speed, racing and competition.
The mid seventies was a time when sex was safe, but driving was dangerous. On the first day of my classroom driver’s education class my instructor proclaimed following. “I want everyone to look at the person next to them. One of you will die in a car crash.” In those days you were shown the crash films like “Mechanized Death.” Real footage of the aftermath of a serious vehicular accident. There were no simulators then and you were taught driving game theory. Most roads were two lanes and you had to pass the Sunday drivers or it would take you all day to go anywhere.
When you’re passing someone and you see an unexpected oncoming car stick to this plan. Do not veer. The car coming toward you will steer to the right. The car next to you will steer to the right as well, opening up a window to move back into your lane. If for some reason that oncoming car doesn’t veer, then hit the accelerator. The slowest car loses.
Production is top notch all around. Special nod to Hans Zimmer and his soundtrack. It’s hard to compete with the roar of a gang of highly tuned race cars. But he moves past his orchestration comfort zone and accepts the challenge to go hi-ocatane.
The official web site is basic. Surprise, surprise.
Photo Credits: Universal Studios