Rush – review

Ron Howard's movie about 1970s British swashbucking F1 star James Hunt and his antler-clashing rivalry with the icy Niki Lauda is a fast and furious treat

No matter how obsessed we continue to be with the 1970s, there's always one more myth left to excavate, and this very entertaining and well-made motor racing movie from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan brings us a meaty tale from 1976: a story of antler-clashing, engine-revving alpha-males. This was a year in which not everyone in fact was obsessed with the release of the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK. In the profoundly conservative world of Formula One, millions of TV viewers were increasingly preoccupied with an extraordinary duel developing between two drivers: the glamorous swashbuckler from Britain, James Hunt, and the icily correct Austrian Niki Lauda.

Hunt is played by the Australian star Chris Hemsworth, his shampooed mane swishing and shirt permanently open, enjoying the birds and the clubs – the Rod Stewart of the race world. He's shown swigging champers and taking a cheeky puff of weed before climbing into the car, rather in the way athletes of an earlier era trained on fish and chips. Meanwhile, the scowling Lauda, rat-faced and jealous of Hunt's joie de vivre, notes how the Brit might get sloppy, undisciplined – and beaten over the championship long haul. He is shrewdly and sympathetically played by Daniel Brühl with a clipped Viennese voice, which reminded me oddly of England's ex-manager Steve McClaren and his Dutch accent.

The Freud-cigar-shaped luxury speed monsters are the centre of their worlds. In the ecstatic words of Hunt's original team manager, Alexander Hesketh (Christian McKay), shouting above the track's roar: "Men love women – but even more than that, men love CARS!" You'd probably have to rewatch Derek Jarman's Sebastiane to find something less heterosexual than that. Yet both men have beautiful wives. Olivia Wilde plays Suzy Miller, whose rock-chick style fits Hunt's image, and Alexandra Maria Lara has the rather stodgier role of Lauda's wife Marlene Knaus, permanently worried and disapproving.

The sport, and to some extent this movie, is about risk. In those days, there was a horribly high chance that any driver would get killed. Hunt and Lauda's face-off is like the confrontation of wartime flying aces: there is low life expectancy, yet they are not competing for national honour but specious glamour and cash. In fact, Hemsworth's Hunt is like George Peppard in The Blue Max, while Brühl's Lauda is closer to Douglas Bader. While Hunt just swaggers around, uncaring, uncomprehending, it is Lauda who can see the downside. It is Lauda who can see that he has grownup responsibilities outside the track; he must face looking like a wimp or even a coward by declining to race in such circumstances. But despite all his caution, it is Lauda who pays an awful price.

Interestingly, Howard's Rush coincides with the revival of Roman Polanski's 1972 documentary Weekend of a Champion about Jackie Stewart, a film that gives a much clearer idea of the boredom involved in being a racer: watching, waiting, worrying about the engine and above all agonising about the weather like a farmer. A recent BBC documentary, Hunt Vs Lauda: F1's Greatest Racing Rivals in fact told a more complicated story about team competition, rather than simply the clash of egos.

So what does it all add up to? Well, it's another reminder of how sporting stars had stronger personalities in those days. Perhaps Howard will now want to reunite Hemsworth and Brühl to replay the Stan Smith/Ilie Na˘stase Wimbledon final. But on the face of it, Morgan's screenplay does not seem to have as much at stake as his other works. Hunt/Lauda does not have the same resonance as Frost/Nixon.

Or does it? Hunt famously abandoned the rigours of motor-racing soon after that year and turned to business projects, to enjoying life and to having a bit of a laugh on the telly. His spiritual descendants are all too clearly a certain trio of car-mad television presenters. Meanwhile, Lauda is shown to be baffled and disapproving at Hunt's attitude. He carries on with racing and the discipline, zooming round and round in circles, despite the terrible thing that happened to him. So which was the champ and which was the chump? We affect to adore dilettantes with their (apparently) squandered talents: the Peter Cooks and the George Bests, and yet in claiming to admire them, we are suppressing a secret twinge at the sad and wasteful side of their lives, while appreciating the warning lesson. But then professional careers are everything to those in the developed world, even more so in the chill of a recession: maybe we are all Niki Laudas now, plugging sternly on. There is something amiable and unaffected in the way Howard's film refuses to decide which of the two was the winner.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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