Niki Lauda's Ferrari by Jamey Price, Photographer Mike McKinnon takes a look at Ron Howard's film RUSH, about the 1976 Formula 1 Championship rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. For a behind the scenes look at the making of the film, including photos, click here.
I have to admit, I was disappointed. The obvious simpatico of The Temples of Syrinx from Rush’s 1976 opus 2112 playing over the credits would have qualified as the greatest moment in film history. Ah, but for missed opportunities.
Terrible ideas aside, there’s actually some honest to goodness parallelism between Rush the band, and Rush the film. Cult-like following. Years of toil, tragedy, triumph and badassery behind the curtain of general public awareness. Stories worth telling. Characters worth portraying. Skill beyond the capability of most mere mortals to comprehend, and those who do, do so worshipfully. A wicked soundtrack. Of course, I’m speaking more here about Formula 1 than the movie, but that too I suspect will be a long, slow burn fueled by fervent fans.
There are similarities in the, I suppose it’s safe to say at this point, general apathy toward both as well. Mainly that they’re too esoteric – songs about sonic revolution in the Solar Federation and a movie about epic showdowns in the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile. And that’s a shame, because in both cases it’s just basic human emotion, dressed up in some fancy pants.
So let’s look at Rush, the new movie from Ron Howard. I can’t even pretend to imagine how someone who isn’t a race fan would respond to this movie, or especially how someone who wasn’t already familiar with James Hunt, Niki Lauda, and the 1976 Formula 1 season-to-end-all-seasons. For those of us who were too young or not even alive when that season went down, it’s the stuff of legends. Watching the movie, my perspective was probably the same as someone who’d read The Lord of the Rings 300 times and was finally seeing on the big screen for the first time.
But as a race fan, and someone familiar with the story and the characters, and also someone who likes to think he appreciates good films, my personal opinion is that Rush lives up to the source material, and also to my basic criteria for a Good Movie. In truth, it should appeal to just about anyone who goes to the movies. You have your basic conflict. There’s gorgeously, filmed, excitingly edited footage of racing cars that look the way most people still imagine they look, like sleek mechanical animals, and not cartoonishly festooned with aero-bits and barnacles like todays F1 cars. There are beautiful people portraying the characters. There’s a bit of gore. Some fighting. More racing. Thor’s butt. From the populist point of view, what’s missing?
It’s also true to history and the spirit of racing. Watch the film, then find the original broadcasts of the actual races. The dialogue in the film is exactly what the commentator spoke during the race, verbatim. So are the press conferences. The races are paced exactly as they were 37 years ago. Aside from a bit of Hollywood coming into play at the close of the final, season ending race at Suzuka, Rush sticks to the facts.
Most importantly, it’s true to the people it portrays. The archetype, the free-spirited, untamable, but naturally gifted rapscallion, a “Maverick” if you will, sees the error of his ways, and at the climax of the film comes through with a sudden burst of self-discipline and humility to win the day. And, on the other side of that coin is the cold, unfeeling, calculating antagonist who suffers defeat as a result of his reliance on pragmatism, and not his gut. Use the Force, Luke. Let go. It’s freaking Joseph Campbell. But that isn’t the case with Rush, and maybe that’s why some people are having trouble finding it relatable or even believable (quick aside – I got into an e-argument with a commenter on a site who refused to believe the events in the film could have happened, that it was all melodrama invented by Hollywood, and who refused to take the time to even look it up on Wikipedia, so incensed were they).
While James Hunt is the quintessential rapscallion, he also never repented, or even felt as though he should. It’s easy to resent people who seem to have it all, and who also get away with it all. Rush doesn’t delve into Hunt’s post-racing career, which included a high acclaimed stint as a BBC race correspondent, but also as an ardent and outspoken opponent of South African apartheid. So the film doesn’t make it easy to respect his choices. But we also never really feel like we should. You can resent the moral implications of his actions, but they’re rarely unethical. He’s also a damned likeable guy. The other racers like him. His team respects him. Everyone seems to know and accept who he is. And it’s cool.
The same goes for Lauda. In any other Hollywood racing flick, he’d be the clear villain. But in many ways, he’s the true hero of the film simply due to the circumstances he endured. Again, no mention is made of his two additional world championships, or his founding of one of Europe’s most successful airlines (although the final scene does hint at his proclivities). Lauda is the Spock to Hunt’s Kirk, if you want. His intelligence or academic approach to racing are never vilified. And when it mattered most, it was his human, basic need to compete that gave the film its true emotional heft. Lauda, in this story, is as much the hero as any other character.
Rush portrays Hunt and Lauda as real people, not archetypes. I think fact alone sets it a tier or two above most sports movies.
Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, pulled a similar feat with Frost/Nixon, also directed by Ron Howard. How do you portray Richard Nixon as something other than the arch bastard of the 1970s? By portraying him as a real man. That kind of confidence in the character is commendable. I dug it. There were a few lines and one scene between Hunt and his soon to be estranged wife that felt forced. But I never really felt the movie was trying too hard to manipulate the audience into feeling anger or sympathy toward a particular character where they were unwarranted. Rush is obviously respectful and enthusiastic about its main characters. It doesn't pander to expectations, or feed the audience reliable old tropes. Good.
Rush is also enthusiastic and respectful toward the era in which it’s set. The seventies, man. It was an era when athletes could be who they be, as long as they performed. James Hunt was considered by all to be a wild card, but he won. And when he stopped winning he moved on. There was no bowing down to sponsors or brand managers, nor was there any withering on the vine to squeeze a few more drops of blood out of the turnip, to mix a few metaphors at once. Aside from one or two slightly too on the nose music cues, I felt it. The music, the clothes, the cars, the attitudes. Formula 1 in the 1970s. The Golden Age. It’ll never come again, and Rush is as close as some of us will get.
Oh, and the cars. Car geek swoon. Just awesome. There were the ’75 and ’76 fields. The Ligiers, the Tyrells, Brabhams. I know of a few hard core racing fans that were disappointed there wasn’t more racing with said racing cars. My response was go watch a race. And don’t think for a second that in fact there was no racing. There were some truly mind-blowing, white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat, insert your own cliché, sequences with some top-shelf cinematography. But racing was really just the context. Rush is about Hunt and Lauda. It’s a character study. I mean, you don’t watch Breaking Bad to see people making meth. You watch Breaking Bad to hang out with the people who do. Which is a strange analog, but whatever. Same principle.
So with that, I think I know why Rush debuted only at #3 for its opening weekend and only cleared about $10 million at the US box office, even with near unanimous praise from critics and strong word of mouth from sneak preview audiences. I think it confuses people. It’s about Formula 1, so it might as well be about cricket or caber tossing (which would probably be a pretty fun movie if you could get Will Farrell on board). It’s also not a typical sports movie, in that it’s not all racing, all the time. It’s also just a small, relatively inexpensive, Euro-centric film, that even though comes from a well-known American director, is for all intents and purposes an art house movie, at least within the context of Ron Howard’s filmography.
I think the legacy of Rush isn’t going to be an eye-wateringly heavy box o’ receipts, but that it’s THE good racing movie. That it’ll be the movie racing fans show to their kids (disclaimer – Rush is rated R). That in 30 years, gearheads around the world will still watch it before the start of every F1 season, or when a particularly boring season wanders on through the fall. I really don’t think it matters what the general public thinks about Rush, or if they think about it much at all. Like the band of the same name, some of us will be fans forever, no matter what. Gas and rock. It’s just in our blood, man.
If you haven’t, you should see Rush. And take someone with you who claims they don’t care about racing. It’s possible, however unlikely, they’ll walk out with a new appreciation. That’s all we ask.