In the past I've always been a bit wary of sports movies, partly because I'm largely indifferent to sport in general, but also because the nature of the movie industry means that any such film getting a decent UK release is either going to be something parochial and probably done on the cheap, or made with at least one eye on an American audience and therefore about baseball or American football or something else I don't have the slightest familiarity with.
One of the very few sports I have occasionally followed is Formula One, which – rather to my surprise – is now the subject of a major movie, Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Quite how much the success of Senna a couple of years ago is responsible for Rush being produced I don't know, but I'd be a little surprised if there wasn't some connection.
Anyway, Rush is the story of the epic rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, leading up to and during the 1976 Formula One world championship. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth (the 70s setting allows him to keep his Thor hairstyle), and depicted – quite accurately by all accounts – as a womanising hellraiser and general debauch, massively charismatic and ferocious behind the wheel of a car (his combative driving style leading to the nickname 'Hunt the Shunt'). Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, is not blessed with great personal charm, but possesses phenomenal mechanical aptitude and the willingness to approach every aspect of racing with meticulous thoroughness.
On their first meeting in 1970, Hunt is victorious, and the film follows their careers and personal lives in parallel until 1976, when Lauda (driving for Ferrari) is defending his world title and Hunt (for Maclaren) is mounting a serious challenge. Central to the film is the race at the Nurburgring in August 1976, in which Lauda crashed and was horrifically burned – only to return to racing six weeks later and take on Hunt in the decisive final race of the season...
Despite all appearances to the contrary, F1 these days is relatively safe (to the extent that going round in circles at 200mph in something not especially structurally robust can be), and it's startling to be reminded that in the 1970s, the annual casualty rate amongst drivers was running at somewhere between five and ten percent. The film doesn't directly address the question of why on earth anyone would choose to participate in what was essentially a blood sport, but instead considers the characters of two men who did.
I'm not sure to what extent Niki Lauda and James Hunt's family have been involved in the making of this film – Bruhl-as-Lauda provides a narration, but whether this consists of Lauda's own words is unclear – but it is admirably honest in its presentation of the two men warts-and-all. Hunt is presented as a man who lives hard, a drinker and a rapacious womaniser: a driven man as well as a driver. Lauda's own coldness and ruthlessness are also plainly depicted. And the film doesn't attempt to evade the fact that this was a rivalry between two men who – to begin with at least – genuinely hated each other.
In the end, of course, what they realise is that their rivalry served to push them both to become someone better than they would otherwise have been, and an element of mutual respect and understanding enters their relationship. That Lauda's rapid return to racing was largely motivated by his determination not to lose his title to Hunt is also made clear.
Lauda's crash and its consequences are central to the final section of the film. There isn't a correspondingly big story in Hunt's racing career and so in order to balance the film, earlier on there's a subplot about Hunt's brief marriage to a model (played by Olivia Wilde). This serves okay to illuminate Hunt's character, but I couldn't quite shake the impression that this was just here to insert a well-known actress into the film and try to make the whole thing feel less relentlessly masculine.
This doesn't really work. This is a film about men obsessed with doing manly things – but that doesn't make it dumb and it doesn't make it bad. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Rush is one of the more impressive films I've seen this year. The performances by the two leads are great (Hemsworth has never been better), the racing sequences are genuinely exciting, the look of the thing manages to subtly evoke the 70s without being too obvious, and the script is intelligent and accessible without overdoing the sports movie cliches. Quite how much all of this will translate into mainstream success, I'm not sure – obviously it should do well in the UK, and probably in other F1-friendly territories too – but I think it deserves to be seriously successful, both commercially and critically.