Go, Speed Racer, Go

In the US these days, automobile racing is synonymous with NASCAR, which has worked hard to become the dominant version of the sport here. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, though, other forms of racing were just as if not more popular, including the Formula One circuit. Watching open-wheel racecars fly through the streets of Monaco or around the hairpin curves at Watkins Glen at 180 mph was thrilling. It was also a much more dangerous form of racing, where it was expected that one or two drivers wouldn’t survive the season. Ron Howard’s new film Rush transports the audience back to those heady, jet-setting days and focuses on the 1976 season and the two drivers who dominated the sport that year – James Hunt and Nikki Lauda.

After a brief coda, the story jumps back to 1970 when both men first met while racing Formula Three cars – smaller, less powerful cars that provided a training ground for future Formula One racers. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) embodies the devil-may-care attitude often displayed by Englishmen in dangerous venues. If he were alive during World War One, he’d have been a flying ace. We first see Hunt walking into an emergency room with a bloody nose from insulting another driver’s wife, but he ends up bedding Nurse Gemma (Natalie Dormer) who tends to his wound.

Where Hunt is fire and emotion, Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is cool calculation and technical precision. The scion of bankers and politicians, his intention to become a racer scandalizes his father, so Lauda turns his back on his family to pursue perfection on the track. While he has a computer-like intelligence when it comes to cars, he lacks the social skills to make him likeable

From their first meeting, the two men battle each other both on and off the track. To a psychiatrist, Hunt would be a massive id, while Lauda is all super-ego. As time passes the two men come to realize they need each other to push themselves to be great.

The racing sequences are some of the best that have ever been filmed. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle bring the audience into the cockpit of the cars or to ground level on the track as the cars fly past. The movie’s sound team captures the intensity of the roaring engine and the slap of the tires on the asphalt tracks. One wishes, however, that there was more shown of the races. Much of the season goes by like an illustrated score card, but when the filmmakers focus on the Brazilian, German and Japanese Grand Prixes, the movie comes alive.

Sadly, off the track the film suffers from a rather pedestrian script that gives only a shallow portrait of both men and the women around them. That said, the cast does a first-rate job with what they have. Hemsworth is mesmerizing as Hunt, and a couple of times he does manage to hint at the man beneath the façade. After his muscular performances as Thor, it’s good to see that vulnerability. Spanish actor Bruhl embodies Lauda beautifully, with an intensity that makes you appreciate a man who is hard to like. Olivia Wilde plays Suzy Miller, the free-spirited fashion model who married Hunt and then left him just before his championship season to marry Richard Burton. Most compelling is Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda, the woman who finally releases Nikki’s emotions.

The historical details are first-rate. In some shots there’s a strange, six-wheeled race car – it’s the Tyrell P-34 that did participate in the Formula One season that year and won the Spanish Grand Prix. However, the team ended its racing the next season. The clothes, hairstyles and other aspects of the production give a wonderful authenticity to the movie. Even with the weaknesses noted, it’s still a well done and thrilling movie, and it is worth seeing the film on the big screen in order to fully experience it.

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