There have been many dramatic movies made about auto racing: the wooden but accurate Le Mans, fictional but sprawling Grand Prix, overzealous and unrealistic Days of Thunder and the simply awful Driven.
This fall brings the first big-budget epic to be true to the sport without straying too far from the truth.
In director Ron Howard's Rush, reality is better than fiction, a path Howard has taken skillfully before with Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, amidst his prolific filmmaking oeuvre.
A Hollywood studio would throw out such a fictional script: womanizing, seat-of-pants racer challenges pragmatic driving genius, who nearly dies in fiery agony on the track, only to return for heroic redemption.
And yet it happened. In 1976, Austrian Niki Lauda was Ferrari's coolly calculating Formula 1 champion. Englishman James Hunt was the brusque, boozy Lothario with the crash-referencing sobriquet, "Hunt the Shunt" who drove for rival McLaren. And their 200 mph duel for the ages came down to the final race of the season.
You can't make this stuff up, and Howard generously treats the tale with respect and, for the most part, with accuracy.
No racing movie will ever equal the juddering realism of John Frankenheimer's car-mounted carnage of Grand Prix. Nor will any modern movie studio allow for the pit row immediacy of Le Mans, in which an astonishing 36 minutes pass before the first word of spoken dialogue is uttered. But Howard's sweeping sprawl of the 1970s F1 racing scene is spot on.
For people who don't know their grand prix history, the taut story arc of Rush takes nearly 90 minutes before Lauda's horrific crash at the German Nurburgring, and the dash to the film's finish is a frantic 40-minute sprint.
A lazier filmmaker would have started at the 'Ring, and backtracked with flashbacks. But Howard's chronological direction is confident, patiently spending time away from the racetrack. The narrative builds to the point where the climactic race in rain-soaked Japan is almost, well, anticlimactic.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Hunt. In this role, Hemsworth hams up his English playboy with a winning smile and easy charm that darkens when he gets behind the wheel or into the bottle.
But Rush is more a tribute to Lauda. European cinema veteran Daniel Bruhl deftly guides his clinical Austrian as more than a mechanical strategist. His scene commandeering a battered Lancia sedan through Tuscan vineyards slyly builds to a rollick. Lauda's clumsy courting of Marlene Knaus -- acted with doppelganger accuracy by Alexandra Maria Lara -- is sweet in its self-deprecation.
But Bruhl's strongest work involves Lauda's hospital scenes. The peeling off of bloodied bandages and the vacuuming of lungs of toxins is played with convulsive, handrail-gripping realism. And Bruhl winningly portrays Lauda's surprise that, finishing fourth in Italy just 42 days after receiving last rites, he becomes, against all expectations, a sympathetic heroic figure.
Thankfully, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen and Frost/Nixon) doesn't build the dialogue to a hackneyed "What does it all mean?" moment, like racing films of old. Steve McQueen's "Everything else is just waiting" line from Le Mans may be epic, but it was cinema grandstanding at its worst. Instead, Morgan has a jocular Hunt use the opening sequence to flippantly dispatch with the racing-sex-death rhetoric and get on with the story.
Between live action and computer animation, the racing scenes are elegant panoramas, with period-correct advertising banners, engine notes and multilingual yammering in the press box. Thankfully, there's no hokey "downshift to pass" sound effects that plague most racing films.
Rush painstakingly applied correct liveries throughout the F1 field, including the backmarkers. There's no "Yamura Motors" substituting for Honda, as in Grand Prix. Wonks will be overjoyed by frequent sightings of Jody Scheckter's revolutionary six-wheeled Tyrell. When actual grand prix cars weren't available, or when actors couldn't fit in the cockpits, Howard's team modified Formula 3 cars instead.
Out of respect for the living, Rush vividly replicates Lauda's terrifying crash at Nurburgring -- down to his racing comrades dragging Lauda's crisped torso from the searing wreckage when safety workers were slow and cowardly in arriving. Viewers who have not seen footage of the incident may accuse Howard of histrionics, but the crash was indeed that ghastly.
Off the track, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle borrows from the Guy Ritchie/Peter Boyle motif in showing Hunt's party-hardy ways, particularly a languorous shot over a spinning LP turntable with a hazy Hunt passed out on a couch. The breakup contretemps between Hunt and model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) encapsulate the phrase "bitter divorce." So much for polite English society.
Mantle also accurately captures the mid-'70s atmosphere of Formula 1, when the debutante entrance of Hunt patron Lord Hesketh transformed racing from wonky pastime into a banquet overflowing with Champagne and lobster. But the glamour wasn't enough to camouflage the danger and death that lurked over the Armco railings.
Being Hollywood, Howard takes some minor dramatic license. To set up the rivalry, Howard has a young Hunt and Lauda clash at a Formula 3 trial at Crystal Palace. The event never happened. Hunt got into fisticuffs with another racer, and Lauda wasn't even present.