Rush – Film Review


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.

Archive photo of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash

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

Paul Newman – Icon of the Screen is Dead at 83

Paul Newman

My earliest memory of Paul Newman was in 1967 when my family was on our annual summer vacation at my Uncle’s lake house in Michigan. It was a small city that had only one movie theater. They were screening Cool Hand Luke that July, and I remember it well, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Like all movies Mr. Newman appeared in, he stole the camera’s eye. No matter how good the actors were that played opposite him, and there were many, he commanded your attention first whenever he appeared on screen. At a later date, I was able to con my mother into letting me stay up to watch him in The Hustler on TV. My father loved that film and I was right behind him. A stunning performance in a film that at times felt like a western, with the top two gunfighters trying to wear down the other into making the first mistake.

His pairing with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and then a few years later in The Sting are probably the two films that stick in the minds of most people. The roles he chose were primarily serious drama, and he was a serious actor, but he could garner a fast laugh with a deadpan tone and great timing.

The system was much different during the height of his career with more time given to rehearsals and preparation. The camera actually filmed the actors for nearly the entire time. Today much of the final product comes from computers or staging actors in front of a blue screen.

He’s a great example of someone who was born at exactly the right time. Had he appeared three or more decades later, it’s possible he may never have been an actor. Obviously he had the physical gifts, but would he have had the patience for the way movies are churned out? Mr. Newman remained first and foremost an actor throughout the span of his career, and he never used his silver screen looks as an excuse to phone in a performance.

As Doc Hudson in Cars

When you heard that Paul Newman was in the film, you knew it would be worth the price of admission. He was a craftsman of the highest order, and kept his edge and commitment to his profession for 50 years. We last saw, or rather heard, him as Doc Hudson in the Pixar movie Cars. My four year old son has seen that movie probably 25 times and of course me at least 20. Turns out that’s the Paul Newman performance I’ve seen more than any other. He was definitely on the decline, his voice cracking and fragile. But it was a great part for him; an older man who was at one time a racing king.

Nominated for an Academy Award ten times, he won for The Color of Money (another billiards picture). Paul Newman is dead at 83.

Asleep at the Wheel – Why Consumers Forgot About American Cars

This post is in response to George Colony’s CounterIntuitive blog challenge, why can’t America build great cars?

George, in a way it’s not their fault. Like many things America has done so well over the last 100 years, we find ourselves with some pretty smart competition these days. It used to be said, “They make airplanes in Everett, Washington (Boeing’s primary assembly point), every one else only tries.” The same could have been said about automobiles and Detroit

GM HQ - 3044 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI - Historic Landmark
GM HQ - Detroit, MI - Historic Landmark

First, a little personal background. Growing up I had two uncles who were mechanics and one who drove race cars on the super modified circuit. I went to watch these open-wheeled cars dash around a dirt, high-banked, quarter mile oval track every Sunday night. When a back injury forced my race driving uncle to retire, guess what he did, he sold cars. First Chevrolet where he would say that Ford meant “found on road dead.” Then he got a better offer from the Ford dealership and suddenly it stood for “first on race day.” Cars are most definitely part of my heritage. As soon as the new car models were in the showroom, my dad would drive us from dealership to dealership looking under the hood, in the trunk, inspecting the interiors. It was kind of like a sacred pilgrimage.

GM was the only way to go in our family. Once my dad bought an MG Roadster for fun and it literally fell apart before our eyes. Needless to say I was influenced by him and was a charter member of the GM fan club when it came time for me to choose a car.

I gravitated to Chevrolet with a Nova followed by two Monte Carlos, then a Buick Century. But over time there were a lot of annoying problems. Some place along the way GM changed the trunk mechanism from mechanical to hydraulic which would fail a year into ownership. Why make that change? The old design worked well and never needed attention no matter how long you kept the car. I was young and didn’t have the money to repair all these things, so I just bumped my head every time I put something in the trunk. There were many other problems with seals, transmissions, air conditioning, starting in cold or wet weather, flooding, starters and overheating.

Now, back on point. I believe you can boil down American’s car problems to the following; arrogance, inertia, lack of understanding customer need states, and a personal favorite, the ivory tower syndrome.

Arrogance is the easiest to understand, ”We believe America makes the best cars in the world.” End of conversation. If you don’t recognize there is a problem, you will have trouble solving one.

Inertia is a bit more subtle. The assembly line to showroom chain was a finely honed process for American car makers. One of my uncles lived in Lansing, Michigan where there was an Oldsmobile assembly line. As a child he took me on a plant tour and I marveled at how all the parts came together like a well choreographed production number. They got them off the line and onto the dealer lots efficiently.

Even though cars were a significant expense for the average family, they were still relatively affordable. My father didn’t make a lot of money as an electrical engineer, but he paid cash for every car he ever bought, trading up to a new GM model every couple of years. Here’s the bill of sale from his purchase of a 1961 Pontiac Tempest Safari station wagon (last generation’s version of the SUV). Total price $3,249.35

The boomers were coming of driving age. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was in place connecting this vast country. The family car was how you saw America, it was the vacation transportation. Women began to enter the workforce and so a second family car was needed. The price of gas was under .50 per gallon. Ride the wave American car barons. All these factors that led to meteoric growth also conspired against them as they pushed the supply chain thinking to the max. This has made it very difficult to rethink or re-imagine a complicated business.

America definitely made cars safer and more comfortable, but it’s hard to see how they thought beyond the next model. It’s as if some guy said, “Let’s try this.” And everyone did it at the same time. It was a look alike game. Styling, colors, options, even the names. Oh yeah, there was one stand out on the name front, Gremlin. Oddly enough, American Motors didn’t survive. There was a brief attempt by Preston Tucker of Ypsilanti, Michigan in the late 1940’s to create “The Car of Tomorrow.” It was successfully stopped.

That brings us to lack of understanding customer needs. Remember the trunk story? When Japanese automakers found a part or design that worked well, they kept it. As a result the quality of their products improved over the years, allowing them to focus more on who would be driving their cars. Honda and Toyota pulled off an amazing marketing feat. They used their management and production methods to raise quality, and their vision and research to gain a yet to be relinquished foothold in the U.S. They gave boomers the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla as they entered their 20’s. Reliable, efficient, low maintenance and long lasting cars. Once the boomers became established in careers and began to accumulate disposable income, they gave us Lexus, Acura and Infiniti, just as we were looking for more luxury and prestige. Brilliant.

Meanwhile America was trying to manage brand strategy and find the quality recipe. The boomer’s parents (at least the dads) pretty much stuck to one brand, but everyone ended up in the repair shop just as frequently with all those annoying problems. Oh by the way, they cost more and didn’t last as long. American car companies were on an internal corporate life-cycle and it was out of synch with consumer need states (customers anyone?). When you give consumers choice they will expand their thinking. It didn’t hurt to see all those Japanese cars on the road. It took a while for Toyota, Honda and others to get noticed, but once they did it was all over.

The “Buy American” anthem was hatched to try and hold off the outsiders. Buying American is great but it would have been much better if it was “Buy American because it’s better,” and actually true.

Now the oldie, but goodie, the ivory tower syndrome. American car execs drove their own car brands and models to work each day and never had any problems with them. “What are all these people complaining about? These cars are fantastic.” Well first of all they always drive new cars. American cars will get you down the road pretty pain free for the first year (12 month or 12,000 mile warranty). Second, when they parked in the headquarters garage a team of mechanics would swarm their vehicles and make sure all was in perfect working order. Hmmm, maybe that had something to do with why the cars seemed in tip top shape. The execs should have given themselves 3-5 year old models to drive and forced to maintain them the way everyone else had to, by making an appointment with a dealer and finding an alternate means of getting to work.

I swore off American cars and bought a new 1994 Toyota Camry. I had it seven years, drove it 118,000 miles and never once opened the hood myself to check the oil or troubleshoot a problem. It was never in the shop for anything except normal maintenance. It never, ever failed to start, even in the harsh Chicago winters. I was converted. I now drive a 2003 Acura TL and love it.

1994 Toyota Camry Instrument Panel
My 1994 Toyota Camry instrument panel the day it was traded

The 1970’s oil embargo and energy crisis helped downsize cars and improve mileage. But America quickly forgot about that, wanting bigger and faster, so on came the SUV, the rebirth of the V8 engine and the era of monster cars and trucks. When looking at the profit margins on those vehicles vs. the other models, it made great business sense to the U.S. car makers. Wall Street liked it too. The quality has come up nicely, the reviews are better and reported incidents of problems has improved.

This success simply sharpened the short sightedness. They completely missed the fact that someday the price of oil would rise as the rest of the world grew and drove, and we would need alternatives to fossil fuel. American car makers have been looking at battery and hydrogen cell technology, but that is a long, expensive cycle, not a strength of the big three.

Now the big American cars and trucks sit idle while consumers are waiting in line to pay full price for the Toyota Prius. The car companies have approached Congress to ask for help in retooling their factories for the next generation of cars. Excuse me, isn’t that what a visionary business plan is for? And by the way, you’re ten years too late. Try competing with your competition before they have won.

Americans over the years haven’t tried very hard to conserve energy, in fact quite the opposite. Fortunately that is changing and has some urgency behind it. You can’t blame the U.S. car makers for giving people what they wanted to buy, but you can hold them to task for not developing a parallel strategy to protect their business for the long haul.

Like so many massive and long-standing communities, airlines and government being two others, it takes outside thinking to change the inside direction. When great things are created, and they are, it’s too late to get the credit.

So George, it’s not that America doesn’t build great cars, it’s just that people feel stupid buying them.