Forty years ago, a senseless motorsport category called Formula One was at the height of its appeal. It was fast, it was dangerous and it was bordering on mythical.
How could a sport that pioneered technological innovation resemble gladiatorial fights from ancient Rome? How could the modern world bare to watch what was essentially a game of Russian Roulette on wheels? Enter RUSH, which attempts to capture an astounding period in motorsport of which even the greatest storytellers can barely put into words.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, most Formula 1 fans worth their salt would know that RUSH has been in the works and set to hit the silver screens.
Directed by Academy Award-winning film-maker Ron Howard and with a screenplay from Peter Morgan (who penned The Queen and Frost/Nixon), the film charts the trials of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship, a year dominated by the season-long battle between great rivals and friends, Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
Lauda had skipped into a seemingly insurmountable lead despite competition from a fired-up Hunt, and it took the Austrian’s accident at the German Grand Prix – in which he suffered horrific burns and was given the last rites before staging an incredible comeback to the track – to swing the momentum back to Hunt.
The playboy Englishman – whose love for women, booze and drugs was the stuff of legend – ultimately claimed the crown in a dramatic showdown at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix, winning by a single point in a rain-hit race where Lauda, unwilling to put his life at risk, withdrew in the early stages of the race.
The season was critical for the sport’s history, as the championship showdown played a crucial role in getting F1 to a worldwide TV audience in the years that followed.
RUSH is a film that blossoms with the use of contrast. The most obvious disparity is in the personalities of the two main characters. Daniel Bruhl is charged with the responsibility of portraying the tirelessly methodical Niki Lauda, whilst Chris Hemsworth depicts the outwardly lighthearted playboy, James Hunt.
Sharing a fierce competitive instinct and superhuman car control is about as far as one could attempt to compare these vastly distinct characters. Lauda is a calculated and intelligent character that places importance on precision and accomplishment, whilst the ever-charismatic Hunt is seemingly all about the pursuit of pleasure.
In reality, neither man was easy to like. Lauda was known for being a cool and calculating man on and off the track, but capable of brutal honesty all the time. Hunt – who is perhaps given a rather more rose-tinted portrayal in the film – was equally irascible when the mood took him, and a driver who was plagued by self-doubt and his own demons for much of his racing career and after it.
It is really Daniel Brühl’s uncanny depiction of Lauda is nothing short of stunning. It has been well publicised that the Spanish-born German spent time with Lauda in preparation for the role, however it is highly improbable that Lauda could have foreseen such an accurate portrayal of himself. The Austrian’s appearance, accent and unique mannerisms are so vividly recreated that even the most die-hard Formula One fans can become temporarily mystified in Bruhl’s depiction of the character.
Equally, Chris Hemsworth seamlessly slots into the character of the film’s charming and spontaneous Hunt. While Hemsworth will no doubt earn plaudits for showing a bit of acting range for the first time in his career, he really is put in the shade by Brühl, who surely must rate as an early favourite for an Academy Award nomination.
That’s not to criticise Hemsworth at all, but rather the slant that the film’s makers took to create incredible tension – verging on outright hostility at times – between the movie’s protagonists. To be fair to both, Lauda and Hunt were actually terrific mates, despite their on-track rivalry.
That’s the quandary that many F1 fans – particularly those with a more intimate knowledge of F1 in the 1970s – may face when viewing RUSH. If you view this as an attempt to faithfully recreate the 1976 season, then you’re likely to feel a little cheated.
There’s no evidence that Hunt belted a journalist who took unkindly to Lauda’s burned face. The controversy surrounding the British Grand Prix (which was a pivotal point in the year, and one which elevated Hunt’s popularity in his homeland into the stratosphere) was entirely left out.
But if you approach this from a pure storytelling standpoint, then it is terrific.
And full credit to Howard, who also makes use of the spectacular divergence between the tireless beauty of driving a racing car at the limit weighed against the harrowing grief that emanates when the limit is exceeded.
As glamorous as it may have been to stare death in the face and come out of the experience beaming, RUSH equally underlines the insurmountable trauma when it all goes wrong.
The staggering emotional strain surrounding every Grand Prix is effectively transferred to the viewer, not because they are in danger, but because Peter Morgan’s screenplay encourages the audience to become emotionally invested in both of the film’s protagonists.
Die-hard fans will be quick to spot the number of UK circuits used to replicate many of the 1976 tracks, but Lauda’s near-fatal accident – shot at the precise point on the Nürburgring where he crashed – is truly harrowing, as are the scenes of his recovery.
The breathtaking sound and the gorgeous cars of Formula One in the yesteryear are captured impeccably in RUSH. The sound of a V8 McLaren M23 alone is enough to warrant the price of admission for any motorsport fan, however unlike the fictional racing flicks that have gone before it, RUSH is equally appealing to a far greater target audience. Non-Formula 1 fans will love this film.
The depth given to the characters and their relationships – and we must give a nod to Olivia Wilde (Suzy Hunt), Alexandria Maria Lara (Marlene Lauda) and Christian McKay (Lord Alexander Hesketh) for their roles – is quite brilliant, and at times, the on-track action takes a back seat to the fascinating sub-plot occurring between the Grand Prix weekends.
RUSH is exceptional in every sense of the word and deserves every single accolade that it receives.
Using our unique ‘Chequered Flags’ rating system, we award RUSH (out of a possible five)…
RUSH will be released nationwide in Australia on October 3. Check your local cinema for listing and session times.