I keep saying I don’t care about cars, but Top Gear is one of my favorite shows and I was really looking forward to Rush. So on some level I must care about cars, right? Nope. I watch Top Gear because it’s funny and I’m interested in Rush because it’s about the kind of people who risk their lives for championship points, not about the cars they drive.
In the dangerous days of 1970s Formula 1 racing, heated rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda battle for the title of world champion.
Because Rush is a clash of personalities, there’s not as much actual race car driving as you might expect from a race car movie. Instead, Ron Howard takes you inside the culture of 1970s Formula 1 – to the point where it even looks like it was shot in the 70s. It’s utterly engrossing, even for people who don’t care about cars or racing.
To me, the Formula 1 culture of the 70s was one of the most interesting aspects of Rush. At this point, health and safety regulations aren’t even a gleam in their parents’ eyes. Drivers fly around hairpin corners at high speeds sitting on giant tanks of fuel, knowing that they could be killed at any moment. And if a driver shows any tendency toward self preservation, like letting another driver past to prevent a collision, he’s laughed at and called a wimp by the others.
Let’s get drink, get high, and drive a bomb at 200 mph. Welcome to 1976.
Even worse than the driver culture is the fan and media culture surrounding Formula 1. Reporters ask callous questions like whether Niki’s wife thinks he’s ugly now that he’s been maimed in a horrific crash. Fans have no problem asking drivers to possibly kill themselves for entertainment purposes – one fan even asks Niki to date his autograph because it might be his last. It’s been 1600 years, and we still haven’t matured beyond Gladiators vs Lions.
The lions, they don’t eat me. I wash my hair in citrus.
Into this blood-clouded shark tank, enter Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Niki is an Austrian whose rich parents refused to support his goal of becoming an F1 driver, so he took out a bank loan and used it to resurrect a failing team. He’s career-minded, redesigning the team’s cars and working hard at being a champion driver. But he has no tact, no humility, and therefore no friends. It’s almost like he has Asperger’s. His wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) is the only person who likes him for who he is.
NIKI: If I have to do this with someone, it might as well be you.
MARLENE: A poet!
By the time Niki’s hard-drinking British rival manages to move up into Formula 1, Niki is racing for Ferrari (a top team with fast cars) and has a world championship under his belt. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is taken on by MacLaren (another top team with fast cars) and suddenly the playing field is equal. The winner of the 1976 world championship will be determined by driver skill rather than car quality. Unfortunately, they’re equal even down to the color of their cars, which makes the race scenes a little hard to follow.
There are slight differences, I grant you, but not when they’re whooshing past at 200mph.
The world championship isn’t just a single race, though. To win, a driver has to rack up enough points through wins and places throughout the season to come out on top. At the start of the season, James has car problems and Niki pulls ahead easily. Then the second half of the season belongs to James as Niki’s accident puts him out of commission for a while, so at the end, it just happens to come down to the results of one race – the Japanese Grand Prix.
And it’s miserable out. Naturally.
The movie is about both drivers and paints them both in an equally flattering light (as in not flattering at all) so who you’re hoping for in the final race may be different than who the person next to you is hoping for. The movie is going for accuracy of character, I guess, because both Niki and James are three dimensional. They’re jackasses who also have good qualities. They also look scarily like their real-life counterparts.
James chews up women and spits them out, even his wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde). He parties too much and doesn’t take his responsibilities seriously. He’s chasing the rush that comes from cheating death. But you have to respect him, because his fearless façade has a crack – he throws up before all his races. He also has a conscience. He’s bothered by the role he played in Niki’s accident and stands up for him when reporters call him ugly, even though James himself used to refer to Niki as a rat because of his overbite.
You can be my wingman any time, rat boy.
Niki, on the other hand, is almost robotic. He’s so dedicated and so exacting that he doesn’t bother to treat his teammates like people. They’re just the tools he needs to do his best work. Niki accepts that every time he gets into a car, there’s a 20% chance he might die, but push it into the 21st percentile and he’ll push back, which is something you have to respect when you know he’ll be derided for it. He’s also incredibly tough – the scenes of Niki’s accident and recovery are just awful to watch.
Fire extinguishers and anesthetic – two more things they didn’t seem to have in the 70s.
So by the time the championship race rolls around, it’s anyone’s game. We have respect for both drivers (and we care about them too). We’ve also seen very compelling evidence that one or both of them may not even live through the day. So this last race is heart-stoppingly tense. Even if you don’t care about racing normally, you WILL care about it now, and that’s why you should see this movie.