Who races Formula One? What kind of personality does it take to take corners at 170 mph, to embrace an endeavor in which two amongst you will be dead before season’s end? A personality that defies death, or one that outsmarts it?
What kind of personality earns champion in such a setting? One that personifies “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” and wrests every vivification life has to offer while it does? Or a “serious guy,” one who studies, improves, and manages every element into as close to perfection as mortal man can get?
How about both? And what when they come together, head to head, tire to tire?
The clash of the temperament titans resulting in the bitterest of personal debate, the best of enemies. The stuff of legend. The stuff of devil-may-care James Hunt and devil-is-in-the-details Niki Lauda, two of the finest Formula One drivers in history, and one of sports’ greatest rivalries.
A million years ago I had the opportunity to attend the Indy 500, something I had thought I would never do. Like, ever. But I was in the band, the band was marching, and that was that. We marched the boulevard to open the weekend, and we marched the track to open the race. It was hot. It was noisy. The so-called perk of attending the race itself promised misery.
I had no idea.
It. Was. Exhilarating. The sound, the roar, the speed, the intensity, the lingering, well… rush of energy immediately after they passed is quite unlike any other sensation. And though it didn't register at the time, part of the awe accrues from the drivers themselves, the ones with the remarkable intestinal fortitude to bring something like that into being.
It’s an astonishing thing, awesome in the definitive sense of the word, and director Ron Howard puts us right in the middle of all of it. Into the garage with the “bombs on wheels” themselves, onto the track as they gird for battle, into the field as they pursue the victory, and behind the wheel and into the psyche of their drivers.
As always with his work, Howard uses well-modulated close-up and scope to tell his tale, creating a sense of simultaneous intimacy and expanse that causes us always to sense him, but never stop to think about it. It’s like having a master behind you whisper instructions into your ear, affording you an experience you cannot create on your own while never intruding into it.
The film’s integrity rests with the lean, understated pen of Peter Morgan. As with "Frost/Nixon" and "The Queen," his well-crafted dialogue speaks truth in ten or so words, and fill the room, and our hearts, with meaning. A character may speak two lines (essentially “I’m a liability anywhere else. Thanks for seeing me.”), and lay out a self-awareness of striking insight, the importance of aligning one’s endeavors with one’s strengths, and the human need for validation for precisely who we are. Another character may speak two words (“You are.”) and lay before the other the lifelong reality of his effect on those around him.
And containing the entire proceeding is another achingly beautiful score by Hans Zimmer. I downloaded it immediately upon arrival home from the screening (I think that’s four on the iPod now). The violins’ quiet air beginning to sing with tension, the bass’ power as the engines begin to surge, the cello of the drivers’ courageous fragility and the sheer nobility of Niki Lauda in particular, and then the confluence, layer upon Zimmerian layer, as they roar toward an elusive victory from which they may not return. It can bring one to tears. Where "Gladiator" challenged and overcame the beast, "Rush" stares it in the eye and drives straight down its throat.
Why would someone undertake such a thing? It’s a good question, and one that can’t be explained adequately with words. It’s visceral, and in the masterful telling of these opposite masters’ story and through sound, score, and sight, Rush gives us the answer we seek.
Chris Hemsworth is [very deservedly] marketed as the film’s draw, but "Rush" is Daniel Brühl’s film. His superb portrayal of Niki Lauda lets us into the lion’s heart of a man made very nearly inaccessible by his drive and attention to detail. Indeed, it takes the accidental adulation of Lauda’s fans to put him on his future wife’s radar. (The sequence is utterly delightful, and I can only imagine what the experience was like for them; the kind of thing they’ll relive for life.)
I wonder if Hunt and Lauda knew the power of their story. Do any of us? I think Lauda knew it for himself, and I’m deeply grateful it’s been so beautifully shared with all of us.
See it on the biggest screen you can arrange, and be careful driving home. ;)
Extra: Here's a great interview for after you've seen it, or if you already know the full story.
Story: The story of the intense arch-rivalry between 1970's Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
Genre: Action, Drama
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Chris Hemsworth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde
Directed by: Ron Howard
Running time: 123 minutes
Houston release date: September 27, 2013
Tickets: Check Fandango.com or your local listings
Screened Sep 23rd at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX