‘With fear, you must prevent nor cure. Fear must not be allowed to take hold in the first place. If you are in a canoe, never listen to the roar of the rapid ahead before you let go of the river bank. Just do it!’ Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Some great men and women are defined by their parents, or shaped by the world around them, or simply, are just born champions. In the case of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, their rivalry – both on and off the track – fuelled their desire to win, honed their skills and gave them the drive and determination to succeed.
You could argue that, without the other, perhaps neither would have pushed himself to become a champion, at least not at the same rate. To backtrack a second, if you hadn’t guessed by now I am of course referring to Rush. A film about two F1 racing legends in the ’70s, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth as the charismatic playboy Brit James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as the calculating workaholic Austrian Niki Lauda. The film roughly charts their rise at the start of the ’70s in Formula 3, through to their intense rivalry for the Formula 1 title in 1976, culminating in an epic race at the Japanese Grand Prix.
With Rush, I feel director Ron Howard had a point to prove. Following the debacle of Angels & Demons (Ewan McGregor jumping out a helicopter to save the Vatican from a bomb anyone?) he wanted to remind us that this was the guy who directed Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, to name a few.
And prove a point he did, with a compelling, engaging and riveting tale. Formula 1 is not for everyone, some would go as far as to say it can come across as dull, being more a competition between mechanics and how they’ve set the car up, than driver skill. However back in the ’70s there was nothing even remotely approaching the levels of safety we have today. There was real risk, indeed there are numerous points in the film where Bruhl’s Lauda talks about percentages, how he’s happy with a twenty percent chance of dying, but no higher. Think about that for a second, that’s huge. No wonder these guys were scared.
Howard’s direction is telling in that sense, whilst he makes the races exhilarating and exciting, you get a real sense of the danger involved. Whether it’s Hemsworth’s Hunt vomiting before every race – with his team just saying that means he’s ‘raring to go’ – or Lauda demanding greater levels of safety and less risk, it’s nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff.
And it’s not just the race sequences. Why would these guys even set foot in these metal death traps? Desire. The desire to win. The desire to be champions. And the desire to beat their fiercest rival and the only man equal to them on a race track. Whilst the other drivers during this decade had skill and nerve, Lauda and Hunt were a class apart. They needed each other.
A nuanced script by Peter Morgan (who also penned Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland and The Damned United among others) gave us a glimpse, not only of their rivalry, but within it, their admiration for one another. Both men were complicated and flawed, such are the minds of champions. Funnily enough, the quieter moments between the two are the ones that really draw you in. As such, you end up caring for both of them, albeit for different reasons.
Hemsworth cuts a dashing figure as James Hunt. Not a million miles away from Thor, but he plays it well. A thousand brake horsepowered thumbs up should go to Daniel Bruhl though. His portrayal of Niki Lauda was like holding a mirror up to the man himself.
Hemsworth will obviously dominate the marketing material to draw the crowds in but, in some ways, this is Bruhl’s story more than Hemsworth’s. And I imagine, come awards season, he’ll get the recognition he deserves. So hats off to him, and hats off to Ron Howard for a splendid return to form.