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"Rush" underplays cars to get to the characters

September 28, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
It is not every year that a Ron Howard film about an epic Formula 1 racing rivalry is released on my birthday. In fact this is the only one in 51 years. I was anticipating this movie since first hearing about it last year during coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix.

Racing fans know that usually movies about our favorite sport tend to the awful (Stallone's "Driven, which would have been so much better with the deleted scenes that added depth the final cut lacked) or the melodramatically awful ("Days of Thunder," which, unfortunately NASCAR chose to imitate).

Though much was made about the chance to see the monster F1 cars of the 1970s on the track, Howard played it smart. They do not take anything approaching center stage. Actually, I longed to hear the Ferrari F1 V-12 screaming its haunting note more than what was presented. And, though we have computer graphics and digital eveything at a filmmaker's disposal nowadays, the best racing footage ever in a movie still goes to John Frankenheimer's 1966 "Grand Prix," starring James Garner, shot with real cameras and cars and chase cars with cameras on them.

Indeed, I found the racing footage in "Rush" just a bit too jarring, with too much emphasis on vibration and camera cuts and jiggling. And, the wreck footage in ultra-slow motion was, of course, the most well done bit of racing action. Racing films always get the wrecks right.

During the climactic Japanese Grand Prix, the footage really did live up to the modern digital promise and answered the question, "How can those guys see in the rain?" The answer is that often, they can't.

It is a good character study of the 1976 Formula 1 season rivalry between eventual champion James Hunt of Great Britain, the boozing, womanizing, dope-smoking playboy, and the analytical Austrian Niki Lauda, 1975s champ, who was badly burned in an August 1976 wreck at the Nurburgring, chasing his rival Hunt in 1976.

From what I have read over the years about the two men, the movie is a good study of them, a bit Hollywood-ized (it is entertainment, after all). And the casting is superb. Chris Hemsworth really is James Hunt, who, despite his lifestyle, remained a likeable F1 figure, while Daniel Bruhl is superb as Lauda, the great, focused, intense driver whose courage can never be questioned, coming back to race in the same season as his face and lungs had been burned.

There is an extended scene of Lauda's treatment that is not for the squeamish, but it is, I think, necessary to underscore his attitude and toughness at getting back in the car so soon.

Olivia Wilde is more strikingly beautiful than ever as Hunt's first wife, a British 1970s model, though the character is given the usual beautiful woman marries playboy superstar treatment. Lauda's wife is portrayed with the most understated performance by Alexandra Maria Lara, whose facial expressions and eyes say more than all the dialogue in the film. She is graceful and beautiful and striking in that way that says she is first and foremost a wife, and she is resigned to racing because it is what her husband does. Stand on the grid at any race track and you will see that expression. (I have. trust me on this one.) I won't be able to watch those Hitler is pissed about something parodies on YouTube the same way again, as Lara was Hitler's secretary in "Downfall," the film from which the parodies rise.

So, no, "Rush" does not end up as a historical romp in the seat of a 1970s F1 car. Indeed much of the season is glossed over with video-game graphics of the results. If you want to see seat time in old race cars, buy a game or dig out your old ESPN race overage videotapes. But "Rush" does not disappoint by making the film characture of racing drivers, as most racing movies do. It seems an honest step back to a different time in racing, in the heads of two rivals so opposite in so many ways. ' Even The Boss, who only watches F1 because I have force fed it to her for 30 years, liked the movie. (She kind of had a version of that wife on the grid look when I asked her why she liked the movie.)

Howard needs to make such a film about later rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, a rivalry I consider one of the most epic in all of sports ever, one I hold as a golden sports icon. Howard did that good of a job with the story in "Rush."


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