Watching Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary Senna, we found ourselves right inside the driver’s seat, witnessing one of the greatest motorsports rivalries of all time. Pitting the legendarily passionate Brazilian against the clinical Frenchman Alain Prost, the film explored the two opposing ideologies of a sport where death lurks at every corner of every track.
But this wasn’t the first time in the history of Formula One where two such drastically different characters fought wheel-to-wheel for the right to call themselves World Champion.
With all the advancements in car safety these day, it’s easy to forget that in the 1970s twelve drivers were killed behind the wheel of a Formula One car. Those who pushed the envelope and became household names were just about the only celebrities who had the very real possibility of dying on live television and in the late seventies. And in that era, there were no two drivers more famous than James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
Ron Howard’s latest film Rush chronicles the famed rivalry between these two megastars. Written by Peter Morgan (The Damned United, Frost/Nixon), the narrative flips between the handsome British playboy Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the calculating Swiss champion Niki Lauda (Goodbye Lenin’s Daniel Brühl).
Hunt is portrayed as a devil-may-care driver who silences his fears with champagne and a never-ending trail of beautiful women. By pushing himself over the edge of reason, he believed it made him a better driver. On the polar opposite side of the spectrum, you have Lauda’s philosophy where he was willing to accept a level of certain risk but not one iota more. His methodical nature allowed him to get the most out of his technical set-up while Hunt’s recklessness brought him victory on more than a few occasions.
Morgan’s script feels a little too clean at times. It revels in creating a certain symmetry between the two drivers: in their approach to relationships, their fears and mutual jealousy. It feels as if he’s trying to make his audience empathise with both characters equally, even though Hunt is basically a complete tool and Lauda is the only one who has to face an incredible setback.
This effort to create a classic battle of the wills doesn’t quite congeal despite the strong lead performances (Bruhl in particular, is amazing in his transformation) so we doubt Rush will see its awards ambitions rewarded. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t good – the racing scenes are some of the best we’ve ever seen on film. With cinematography from Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) Ron Howard puts us inches from the track, on board the cars and inside the drivers’ helmets in some genuinely white-knuckle sequences. Petrolheads will get kick out of seeing 70s F1 stars and cars tear it up onscreen.
As a serious film about two historical men dealing with death and glory, Rush is somewhat slight. But as a thrilling and nostalgic sports movie with compelling central characters, it’s one hell of a ride.
Rush is in cinemas this Friday