Is RUSH the best racing movie ever?
the review by Dakota Franklin
in interview with André Jute
Can you describe RUSH briefly?
I can do better. I can bring you screenwriter’s Peter Morgan’s own capsule description. “Set against the sexy, glamorous golden age of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, the film is based on the true story of a great sporting rivalry between handsome English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and his methodical, brilliant opponent, Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The story follows their distinctly different personal styles on and off the track, their loves and the astonishing 1976 season in which both drivers were willing to risk everything to become world champion in a sport with no margin for error: if you make a mistake, you die.” Thanks, Peter!
You’re a novelist. Do you have a description of your own?
As a racer, I have a different outlook on the movie. Let me set the background for you. In 1976, anyone with a calculator could work out that in seven seasons of grand prix racing, a driver stood a 50% chance of dying behind the wheel, very likely by being burned to death, a horrible way to go. Niki Lauda himself accepted that every time he went out to race he stood a 20% chance of dying. Those are unacceptable odds. To me RUSH is about a brave racer who defied the odds at the Nürburgring under impossible conditions, was nearly burned to death, and only weeks after being given the last rites was racing again. Yet the same man, to make the point to everyone that some races are so dangerous that they should be stopped, gave up the championship by climbing out of the car at Fuji when it rained too heavily to see. Lauda, ever honest, refused his team manager’s offer of saying that it was a mechanical. He told the press he stopped because it was too dangerous. Lauda, with Jackie Stewart and Max Mosley, is responsible for grand prix racing today being a relatively safe sport if you consider the elevated velocities at which it is conducted.
Is RUSH faithful to the real life facts of what is after all recent history?
You can’t put much in the short span of a movie. A moviemaker has about thirty scenes in which to tell a complete story, in which he has to establish for the viewer everything that is relevant about not just the immediate events which justifies a $38m movie, but everything relevant about the lives and personalities of characters. That’s a third or less of the space that I, as a novelist, am permitted. On the other side of the coin, every picture tells a thousand words, and a moving picture tells a million words. So the truth of the movie is decided not only by writer Peter Morgan’s and the director Ron Howard’s choices, made for dramatic reasons, but also by the choices editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, the film’s cutters, made to fit the movie into the accepted commercially viable timespan of around two hours. Also, a movie needs a certain level of conflict, just like a novel. So, whereas as a dramatic recounting of six years’ events in the lives of two racers, RUSH rates very highly indeed, as a documentary, RUSH would be rated 6/10. However, that doesn’t mean RUSH isn’t faithful to the essence of what happened. That Niki Lauda, not a man to mince words or tell white lies, approves of the film tells you it is faithful to his memory of the essence, regardless of some compaction of the facts.
Give us a few hard facts RUSH “compacted”.
James Hunt and Niki Lauda were not enemies, they were friends. Lauda stayed in Hunt’s apartment when he was in London. Lauda, though intensely focussed, wasn’t exactly the complete uptight Teutonic goody-goody he is portrayed as: he caught his share of the overflow of girls Hunt attracted. In fact, some from those days will tell you he befriended the unreliable Hunt for the girls. But an admission in the film that offtrack they were friends would detract from the tension of their ontrack competition, and in fact the growing friendship between them that Morgan and Howard substitute adds subtly to the attraction of the movie. The rest consists of mainly minor details. Example: It seems from the movie that James Hunt won Driver of the Year in 1970, but in fact he won that award in 1973, a year you will search for in vain in the movie; one presumes the editors cut all scenes from 1973 to make the time cap, and then shoved the award ceremony into 1970 to establish Hunt as a playboy. Another example: Some of the political shenanigans of Formula One, like taking a Brands Hatch victory from James Hunt on a technicality, are missing altogether, though we are offered an incomplete glimpse of the notorious disqualification in Spain and the subsequent restoration of the victory, without any reasons being offered. I don’t know how to present that sort of information to a general film audience though, however fascinating it may be to racers and engineers and committed fans.
Besides the friendship thing, changed for understandable dramatic effect, these items amount to little more than amusements for nerds and anoraks. Do details like that bother you?
I’m an anorak and a nerd too, and an engineer, so I understand what bothers meticulous people. But as a novelist I grasp that in a few years the minor details RUSH gets wrong for lack of space or dramatic purposes won’t matter a damn. As you say, entertainment value for insiders: spot the wrong date. But here’s one that I deliberately got wrong in a forthcoming novel, AMERICAN RACER, which RUSH also gets deliberately wrong, and for the same reason, to add color and excitement. The Guild of Motoring Writers in Britain is notorious for its misogynism. It never invites spouses and other females to its events. But I put women into one of their events in my novel, as a gentle hint, and Howard and Morgan, I was amused to see, playfully did the same in RUSH!
You’ve met many of the people portrayed in the film. Do the actors look like the real racers?
Many of the events in the film happened before I was born! But yes, as a teenager I saw James Hunt in London, and I see Niki Lauda a few times a year, and I met Clay Regazzoni in the later years of his life, and so on, too many people to name who are still, or recently were, in Formula One, and are portrayed in this film. The many striking cameos, all superbly realized, are a real thrill of this film, one of the things that makes it superior. (“Good heavens,” I said to my family when the young Di Montezemolo was pictured, “that’s Luca!” It wasn’t, it was the actor Ilario Calvo playing Luca.) I imagine that Chris Hemsworth is probably a sunnier character than James Hunt was behind the scenes but the actor added the missing element and I believed in him as James Hunt the playboy, who in real life was a charming shit, selfish and unreliable. Daniel Brühl was totally convincing as Lauda. I didn’t know Lauda when he was young and — we have to say it — before he was scarred, but Brühl’s internal force is almost a visible dynamo spinning up. Brühl gives an uncanny, eerie performance. It’s definitely Brühl’s movie. The filmmakers cheapened Regazzoni, who in real life was a gentleman. Augusto Dallara plays Enzo Ferrari, reading a newspaper, with his feet literally on the test track at Fiorano: This is mine! I loved the details, and racing fans who know their history will have a ball with this movie.
So, is RUSH the GREATEST racing movie ever?
For some, sure. For a racer and for the hardcore racing fan who has taken the trouble to inform himself of the background and all the details, LE MANS with Steve McQueen is the greatest racing movie ever; we just can’t understand the people who think it is boringly about cars going round and round. (Brainless berks! Not an ounce of heroic romance in their souls.) Even for new fans, who just see the glamour and have zero grasp of the engineering and the daring, there are other contenders: A MAN AND A WOMAN is beautiful and touching film about the romance of racing drivers rather than racing, which RUSH barely touches on. But, yes, many racing fans, perhaps a majority, will choose RUSH as the greatest, now and probably forever, as LE MANS is to me.
Greatness is opinion, but the best racing movie should be determinable on easily understood parameters. Is RUSH the BEST racing movie ever?
Yes, RUSH is the best racing movie ever. Precisely because it is about people, and the people lived for racing, and would have died, and one nearly did, to keep racing. RUSH is about giants, and some of us can reach out and still touch one of them, Niki Lauda, when he fronts up at the Formula One races, these days as the chairman of the Mercedes GP team. RUSH is the best racing movie ever made by a substantial margin.
Rate RUSH for us as a movie regardless of its racing connection, and also as a racing movie.
RUSH is dramatically a superb movie regardless of the racing connection, so it scores a high step on the podium, 9/10. As a racing movie it takes the checkered flag, 10/10.
RUSH is in cinemas and available for electronic download. A DVD follows.
André Jute is a novelist and Dakota’s editor.