Rush: Thrilling Mass Entertainment

Call it Clash of the Titans. Ron’s Howard’s new spectacular film, Rush, posits two rivals during the 1976 Formula One (F 1) race.

World-premiering at the Toronto Film fest, Rush will be distributed by Universal later in September, first in limited release in N.Y. and L.A. before going wide.

In his second, fruitful collaboration with the accomplished British screenwriter (Frost/Nixon was the first), Howard has made a thrilling sports biopic that pays equal attention to the competition as well as the idiosyncratic personalities involved. As a result, Rush emerges as a more special (and personal) racing film than is the norm in such varied pictures as The Grand Prix.

The 1970s competition comes across as merciless, exciting, and legendary, not least because of the two men, who could not have been more different from one another.

Chris Hemsworth is well cast as the talented British playboy James Hunt, and so is Daniel Bruhl, as his disciplined Austrian opponent Niki Lauda.

Set during what historians consider as the golden age of racing, Rush portrays in exhilaratingly filmic mode the factual tale of the charismatic Hunt and the methodically brilliant Lauda, two of the greatest rivals the world of sports has ever witnessed.

Morgan takes us into their personal lives and clashes, on and off the Grand Prix racetrack, of the two drivers as they push themselves to the limit in terms of physical and psychological endurance to the point where the rivalry and resultant victory appear to be no less than matters of life and death.

In the process, we get to know the femmes behind the legendary men: Suzy Miller (the always graceful Olivia Wilde) and Marlene Lauda (Alexandra Maria Lara) who, while providing the needed loving support do not shy away to show their fear and anxieties about.

In 1975, Austrian racer Lauda drove to the Formula 1 (known as F1) world title in a Ferrari-powered car, ending a seven-year reign by Ford. Lauda’s run to the top set the stage for the dramatic 1976 season in which the story is told.

Defending champion Lauda of Ferrari drove to six victories in the season’s first nine races, capturing the top prize in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco and Great Britain. Lauda also earned a spot as runner-up in the Spanish and the U. S. Grands Prix and made it to a third-place finish in Sweden.

Midway into the season (eight races), Lauda and Ferrari had built up a lead in the point standings, doubling the total of their nearest competitor. While Lauda dominated, James Hunt—the driver who finally emerged as his greatest rival—struggled. In his first year with Team McLaren, he failed to finish four of the season’s first six races.

But, as Howard and Morgan tell the story, controversy continued to haunt Hunt even in victory. Although he beat Lauda to the finish line in the season’s fourth race, the Spanish Grand Prix, officials disqualified Hunt after the race, based on the fact that his Marlboro McLaren-Ford M23 was too wide. McLaren, who protested that the discrepancy was due to the tires expansion during the race, eventually won its appeal, but it took two long months before Hunt’s points were reinstated.

Hunt claimed victory at the French Grand Prix, when Lauda was forced to retire due to engine trouble, in what became the only race the Austrian had failed to finish. After his triumph in France, Hunt competed in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. However, Lauda won the pole and led in the first half of the race. When Lauda experienced gearbox troubles with only 15 minutes left, Hunt took the lead, resulting in mass frenzy. Hunt went on to victory, and Lauda held on for second.

Controversy again haunted Hunt: The British Grand Prix was finished after a restart on the first lap. Clay Regazzoni, Lauda’s Ferrari teammate, challenged Lauda. When their cars touched, Regazzoni spun and was hit by Hunt and Jacques Laffite. Although the rest of the race went, the debris on the track necessitated a restart.

Hunt jumped into his team’s spare car for the restart, as did Laffite and Regazzoni, though they were forced to retire. After the race, Ferrari and two other teams protested Hunt’s win in a backup machine. McLaren claimed that, since no lap had been completed, the restart rules did not apply. F1’s governors upheld the protest, stripping Hunt of the victory and placing Lauda in the first place.

If Rush were based on fiction, the tale would be criticized for being contrived, implausible, and unbelievable. That the film is faithful to the basic facts of both men’s lives makes it all the more remarkable and exhilarating.

You don’t expect racing films to be well-acted, and Rush may indeed be the exception to the rule. Assisted by an effective screenplay and astute direction, both actors rise to the occasion and render commanding, even shining performances. It does help that both real-life men are rumored to be charismatic in their own right.

End Note: Spoiler Alert

Lauda returned to win the World Drivers Championship in 1977 for Ferrari. He later switched to McLaren and won his third title in 1984 by one-half point over teammate Alain Prost. After the 1985 season, Lauda retired from racing.

Hunt’s battle with Lauda resulted in Hunt’s sole World Championship. After the 1979 season, Hunt retired from racing and worked as a racing commentator for BBC Sports. Hunt died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45.