AutoMatters: RUSH – A Film by Ron Howard

By Jan R. Wagner

Why has it been so difficult for Hollywood to make great auto racing movies? As I think back to many that I’ve seen over the years, I can hardly think of any that captured the essence of the sport.

Part of auto racing is inevitably the crashes, and Hollywood is good at recreating realistic crash scenes. In movies spanning the period between Elivis Presley and Tom Cruise, NASCAR stock car racing was well represented in terms of the thrills and spills, but those films were seriously lacking in terms of racing authenticity and believable characterization. They failed to capture what draws die-hard fans to auto racing. Rather, those films portrayed an almost laughable caricature of racing.

A powerful human-interest story is not necessarily a requirement for a great racing movie, as we saw in the classic Steve McQueen film “Le Mans.” It is well documented that “Le Mans” barely had a story as filming began but it really didn’t matter to hard-core motorsports enthusiasts because the racing was so well done. I remember watching it at a drive-in movie theater, from behind the wheel of my Datsun 240-Z. I almost felt like I was racing at Le Mans.

Another classic auto racing film from that era was James Garner’s “Grand Prix,” which I first saw in Cinerama. I still remember the larger-than-life opening sequence, with its colorful, fast-paced mosaic of racing shots and sounds that overwhelmed the senses.

Recently “Snake & Mongoose” captured the essence of drag racing, extensively and effectively using historical footage to tell the racing side of the story of two legends of the sport, at once both friends and rivals.

“Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans” is a four-part TV documentary mini-series that tells the compelling story of racer and actor Patrick Dempsey and his team, as they try to beat the odds and race at Le Mans. It gives audiences a true appreciation for the extreme challenges and danger of motor racing at the highest level.

Plenty of buzz has surrounded the theatrical release of “RUSH,” Ron Howard’s new film about Formula 1 auto racing. As I wondered whether it would be yet another variation on the uninspired “Days of Thunder” formula, I drove to Los Angeles to watch a preview of “RUSH.” Brembo hosted the screening and many in the audience were my fellow members of the Motor Press Guild.

Before making “RUSH,” Ron Howard knew little about auto racing in general and Formula 1 in particular, so this could easily have become yet another forgettable auto racing film, but that is not what Ron Howard does. He became a serious student of auto racing. For months he showed up at racetracks around the world, learning about the sport and developing a deep appreciation for it.

“RUSH” tells the story of one of the great on- and off-track Formula 1 driver rivalries, between the wild playboy James Hunt and the serious, studious, disciplined and blunt Niki Lauda. “RUSH” is set in the mid-1970s, a time when it was understood that racing was very dangerous and that every year drivers would die behind the wheel. That’s just the way it was back then. Safety developments did not keep up with the ever-increasing speed of the racecars. Even in the best of conditions the racing was dangerous. Rain, mechanical failures, tree-lined tracks and driver errors spelled a recipe for disaster.

Fierce rivalries are exciting to watch as they play out. Think Senna and Prost, and perhaps next year Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikonen, his new teammate at Ferrari.

“RUSH” succeeds at every level. The racing and the action are authentic and spectacular, from the priceless vintage Formula 1 cars to the fiery, sickening crashes. The love interests are real and gritty. Off-track violence is constrasted with humor, like in the hitchhiking scene with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) and her future husband Niki Lauda.

The casting of Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt is spot-on brilliant. The vintage racecars are marvelous – my favorite is the six-wheeled Tyrrel P34. The international locations and the period-correct clothing styles add to the atmosphere. “RUSH” is a step back to a special time.

“RUSH” is one of the best auto racing films that I have ever seen. I highly recommend it and fully intend to see it again.

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Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #299