Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Alternate Title:  The Men who Drive in Circles

One sentence synopsis:     Racecar drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda face one another over the course of the 1976 Formula One Championship season.

Things Havoc liked:  Sports enthusiast though I am, Formula One racing is about as far outside my context as it's possible to get (Buzhkasi notwithstanding). Yet the sport's appeal is evident, as it consists of certifiable lunatics getting into explosive bombs that travel at substantial fractions of Mach and hurl themselves around fiendishly devised tracks in the vain hope that they will not die screaming in the midst of a 900 degree bonfire. If NASCAR carried this level of risk (and didn't consist of a single oval) I might even be a fan. But for those of us ignorant Americans to whom Formula 1 sounds like a chemistry reagent, acclaimed director Ron Howard has arrived to show us what we've all been missing.

Rush is the story of two Formula One drivers, Englishman James Hunt, and Austrian Nikki Lauda, and the events leading up to and during their tumultuous battle for the Fomula One championship during he 1976 season. Played respectively by Thor's Chris Hemsworth, and Inglorious Basterds' Daniel Bruhl, the two men, like any good rivals, are a study in contrasts. Hemsworth's Hunt is a well-liked party animal and playboy, a dilettante whose racing and lifestyles are bold and uncompromising, with whirlwind affairs and nights of blackout drinking. Yet the film does not portray Hunt as a degenerate, merely a man who lives and thrives upon the razor's edge of immense danger, driven to race so as to prove his worth to some unknown figure, or perhaps himself. During the several different moments when his life falls apart, he evidences quite clearly that nothing, not his ill-advised marriage, not his life, not any talking-to by figures of authority, matters to him more than his vocation, and thus we see him earn the respect of other drivers and racing managers alike. This is, after all, not a sport which caters to restrained people, and in one of the best lines in the film, he tells his wife, with whom he is having great difficulties, not to look to for normal behavior amongst men willing to die driving cars in circles.

And yet Lauda, on the other hand, seems to torpedo that entire line of argument. The scion of an Austrian banking family, Lauda is an abrasive, cold, and unlikeable individual, who pretends, at the very least, to have no passion for anything, regarding racing as merely his job. This is a lie, of course, as it rapidly becomes clear that Lauda is driven by the need to be better than everyone else, not necessarily at racing (though that is a major element), but in general, in any field he values in his life. His driving style is mathematical and precise, predicated on a sober analysis of the risks that he will face. Lest that sound cowardly, the movie opens with his flat declaration that every year, 24 Formula One drivers begin the season, two of whom, on average, will die during the course of it. Strategic and calculating, he creates a plan for victory based on the knowledge that Hunt's fearless risk-taking may well win him a race or two, but that in the long run, he will be the one to stand triumphant. His lack of warmth and reputation as an asshole are badges he proudly wears as evidence that his 'system' for racing is producing precisely the results he wishes it to, and damn all other costs and concerns that come his way.

So far, we have a setup for your average sports movie, I know, yet Rush is anything but. Lauda and Hunt hate one another from the day they meet, yet their parallel rises through the lower circuits to Formula One itself carries its share of challenges and surprises for both men. In an early sequence, Lauda, the unshakeable, meets a woman in Italy whom he almost accidentally charms by first correctly diagnosing her car's problems just from the feel and sound, and then, at her request, demonstrating his own abilities with the replacement car that picks them up. Despite all odds, they soon wed, yet Lauda now fears that happiness will ruin his competitive edge as he pushes into the grand campaign. Hunt meanwhile, whose racing team is as dissolute as he is, finds himself without sponsorship, without a car, and without a wife, but manages through grit and desperation, to overcome at least two of these obstacles (no prizes awarded for guessing which). By introducing and developing the characters separately, the film grounds us in both of their stories, making it all the more important to us what will happen when they finally do meet, compete, and suffer the inevitable consequences of that competition. The two characters' relationship begins and remains complicated all the way through to the end of the film, and is clear that Howard recognizes that this, not merely the cars, is what holds our attention.

Not that the rest of the movie has short shrift at all. Hans Zimmer's score is excellent as usual, incorporating period (70s) music for a dash of verisimilitude, and punctuating the actual races well without overpowering them. The racing is overall fantastic, giving a sense of the incredible speeds which these machines employ, alternating close in views and skycams with the occasional heads-up shot just to demonstrate what the experience of actually driving one of these things is like. The elaborate and frankly arcane scoring system that Formula One uses to determine who wins what is thankfully more or less dispensed with, the film simply giving us what information we actually need to know what the stakes are. I was surprised just how many races one can fail to complete in the course of a circuit while still remaining a top contender for the championship, but given the hair-thin margin on which these cars are balanced, I suppose events such as your engine spontaneously exploding into fine powder are the sorts of things one must expect to experience over the course of a year's campaign. All of the supporting actors, from World War Z's Pierfrancesco Favino to Downfall's Alexandra Maria Lara, play their roles just right, be it as other racers who understand the unspoken compact that such men engage in when risking their lives, or bystanders, family, and friends, who do not, and simply must live with this facet of their drivers' lives. Finally, the film does not shy away from the horrific, gruesome aftermath of car wrecks at 160 miles an hour, nor the exceedingly unpleasant process of trying to recover from a crash in which most of your body was burnt and your lungs filled with flaming gasoline fumes. These are the risks these men take to this day, and one need only look over the list of fatalities associated with Formula One in the last few years to grasp why these men might act as they do.

Things Havoc disliked:  Some of the dialog in the film is a bit on the nose, particularly a couple of speeches given by Lauda to Hunt during one of their many conversations or confrontations. Most of them sound like prepared speeches instead of spontaneous dialog, as though the scriptwriter couldn't think of a way to demonstrate some particular facet of a character, and instead opted to have him explain it to the audience. Hardly the only film to do this, but it stands out when it happens.

There were also a few questions in my mind as to some of the racing decisions made here. Several of the races that year take place under torrential downpours, producing conditions so hazardous that, at least according to Lauda, they pushed the risk of someone dying in the course of the race up past 20%. Yet in every case, not only does the race continue on, but attempts to get it canceled or postponed are brushed aside almost contemptuously. Perhaps there is an element here that my American mind is not qualified to speak to, but I'm used to sporting events, even dangerous ones, where such elements as monsoon rains turning the track into a death trap are taken into account. The Super Bowl itself, the holy grail of American sporting, has been delayed several times in its history due to weather conditions, despite the fact that nobody has ever actually died in the course of playing it. Soccer, Cricket, and Rugby matches are also so governed, as is NASCAR, yet I am to believe that the most dangerous sport in the world (statistically) is not? The weather conditions in one of the final races of the season are so bad that I would not, in a million years, even consider driving in them, and I'm not customarily trying to race around a hairpin turn at a hundred and fifty-seven miles per hour.

Final thoughts:   I am required to find bad things in every great film, just as I am required to find good things in every terrible one. By now I think you know which this is. Rush is tremendous movie, interesting, even fascinating throughout, expertly crafted and compelling even to a non-fan. If you're not considering the film yet, then perhaps this little anecdote will convince you: As I said before, I am no follower of Formula One racing in general. But having seen this movie, I actually watched part of this year's Japanese Grand Prix, and may, in two days, watch some or all of the Indian one.

I'm pulling for Raikkonen personally, but the safe money is on Vettel to threepeat.

Final Score:  8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...