Having been a major gearhead and Formula 1 fan through my early 30s, naturally, I caught the new Ron Howard movie, Rush, and came away impressed. You don’t necessarily need to be a racing wonk to enjoy it, but you get more out of it if you are, particularly if you were around in the 70s to cheer on drivers like Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
Like most biopics, Rush moves past some facts to get to drama. The story is built around a bitter rivalry between the wild child Hunt and the precise controlled Lauda, but in reality, they were friends. Hunt had great raw talent, but Lauda, a three-time world champion, was the more talented driver.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor, to some of you) and Daniel Bruhl give us very good characterizations, and the dialogue rarely lags. The sex is fun to watch, and the racing is thrilling, even if some of the shots are pretty time-worn. (Of course, how many ways are there to photograph an auto race?) There are few other good movies about auto racing; Grand Prix, from 1966, starring James Garner, is the most direct ancestor to Rush. Steve McQueen’s 1971 LeMans is more focused on the racing than anything else, making only a slight gesture to romance.
Speaking of romance, there is a very funny hitchhiking scene with Alexandra Maria Lara, who plays Lauda’s future wife, Marlene, that plays off (intentionally or not), the famous scene with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night.
What the movie really gets right, however, is the addictive element of auto racing. To anyone not afflicted, it seems a huge waste of money and resources–and sometimes lives–on an activity that lives on the far fringe of society. People who climb into small cars, sitting in the middle of a few metal bars and surrounded by fuel tanks, and propelling them around at speeds approaching 200 mph are borderline insane by this measure, and there’s some truth in that. The depiction of Lauda’s horrible accident at the Nurburgring track in Germany is graphic testament. They’re also highly skilled and very brave, as Lauda’s return to racing just a few weeks later illustrates.
As the title explains, when you get right down to it, it’s a rush. Note that actors like Garner, McQueen, and Paul Newman were all drawn to it, and were pretty successful amateur racers. I haven’t raced, but I’ve taken a racing drivers’ training program, so I got a small taste of what it feels like. The speed, the noise, the immediacy of all the sensations of hurtling around a race course, are indeed addictive. I’m about the same age as Hunt, Lauda, and their competitors, and, frankly, I wish I had been there with them.