*Photo Credit: The Hollywood Reporter
“The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.”
With this opening line, you may imagine I am prepared to discuss a film that details any number of dangerous sports. Perhaps mountain climbing, cave diving, ultramarathon running or big wave surfing. One that often does not come into mind, although it certainly should, is motorsports. Most people likely forget that the most dangerous thing they do each day is get behind the wheel of a car. Director Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush showcases the world of Formula 1 in the 1970s, specifically focusing on the rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda that climaxed in the 1976 Formula One season.
This task was taken on by Howard, who admitted possessing little to no knowledge of the 1976 season or of Formula One racing. Instead of resorting to usual sports movie cliches — the underdog winner, the impossible comeback — Howard takes the genre into new places with his introspective look at the risk and rivalry that the world of motorsports offers.
Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda laments early on in the film that every year, an average of two Formula 1 drivers die. It is a calculated risk that every time they get into the car, there is a chance it will be their last. Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt acknowledges this fact as well, and he revels in it, claiming that the risk that drivers take is irresistible to the ladies.
Their rivalry was a natural one, born at the lower-tier Formula 3. After Hunt jauntily arrived to the track with a mean hangover, shortly before the race was set to begin, he noticed a driver barely speaking and with a dead serious expression. His friends incorrectly called him “some kraut” (Lauda is Austrian). It was reported that the driver in question — Lauda — had shown up in the early hours of the morning to walk and preview the circuit, leaving nothing up to chance. Hunt was notorious for his propensity to throw up before races, and this Formula 3 race early in the film is no exception. Some of it was nerves, some of it was a physical manifestation of the consequences his playboy lifestyle, which had to be toned down to make it believable for the film. Hunt got the best of Lauda that day, and it spurns the film’s events into action.
Ron Howard brilliantly displays this rivalry throughout the remainder of the film. Hunt drives purely on nerves — shooting for the gap that isn’t there to overtake another driver, pushing his car just a bit harder in the turns than the others dare. Lauda, on the other hand, drives with skill and careful precision. Hunt is rarely seen in the garage with his car, meanwhile Lauda pulls all-nighters with his crew to make the car perfect. Hunt was a playboy. His exploits are unbelievable at best and revolting at worst, whereas his rival refuses alcohol and worries that significant others would distract him from his craft. Hunt is undeniably handsome, possessing a chiseled physique (Chris Hemsworth actually had to lose muscle for the film after starring in Thor shortly before filming commenced), an acute articulateness and an unmistakeable likeability. He is the quintessential badboy — the guy who you hate to love, but do anyway. Lauda, as Hunt routinely states, “looks like a rat”, avoids his rival’s life of excess like the plague, speaks English with a thick accent and is hated by his fellow drivers, likely because he was a hell of a driver despite rejecting his contemporaries’ lifestyle. He is the guy you love to hate.
Rivalry usually spawns more than those involved bargain it to. It creates something that only two individuals or groups with as stark of differences can have in common, a mutual respect for your fierce competitor. Both men were from wealthy families but chose a life of intense danger instead of following their families’ wishes to enter law, finance or medicine.
Both men believed that all drivers were fast, but disagreed on what made someone the best. Hunt thought bravery is what made a driver stand apart from the pack. Lauda believed the difference was in the car — engine, tires, weight, aerodynamics — the seemingly small things that can make all the difference in the world. Who was right? Both — to an extent. Bravery often takes the form of dangerous moves, which some might call stupidity. Having that attribute certainly matters in the world of motorsports, but Lauda reckons the stability of a consistently fast car can not be beaten in the long run.
Even those with a cursory interest in the subject matter will know one of the most important scenes of the film before they press play — that being, Niki Lauda’s accident in Germany (often regarded as the most dangerous track in the series), in inclement weather, that left him burned alive. We see his miraculous fight from a coma to return to the Formula One cockpit unfold on the screen; all the while he watches his rival make gains on his series lead. James was partly responsible for the crash, after persuading drivers to race on a wet track; but fully responsible for getting his rival back in the car.
Lauda had cheated death, the trick that Hunt himself had an infatuation with doing race after race — but it left him permanently scarred. Hunt may have escaped death on the track, but his lifestyle caught up with him off of it. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 45. It all comes down to the wire at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix: the rivalry, the different driving styles, lifestyles. Want to know who gets the better of the other? Watch the film. The answer may be more complex than you expect.
Today, Formula 1 drivers are among the most famous athletes in the world. They boast stunning net worths, get paid to drive cars the rest of us only dream of and are status symbols in the high places the series often competes in. Let’s just say things were a little different in the 1970s. Sponsorships from multinational banks and corporations? Try cigarette and condom manufacturers. Impeccable safety standards and precautions? I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it.
James and Niki didn’t do it for the fame. They did it to revel in the heat of competition and to cheat death, but each in their own way.
Not only does Rush stand out among films about motorsports, but it is one of my favorite entries into an often lacking sports genre that would rather tell the audience a story they have been told many times before than take risks. Ron Howard shot for the gap that may have not been there and emerged from the director’s chair victorious.