Mano a mano: Rush ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 28, 2013)

I’ll admit up front that I don’t know from the sport of Formula One racing. In fact, I’ve never held any particular fascination for loud, fast cars (or any kind of sports, for that matter). If that makes me less than a manly man, well, I’ll just have to live with that fact.

However, I am fascinated by other people’s fascination with competitive sport; after all, (paraphrasing one of my favorite lines from Harold and Maude) they’re my species. There’s certainly an impressive amount of time, effort and money poured into this peculiarly human compulsion to be the “champion” or securing the best seats for cheering one on; even if in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

So what is it that motivates a person to squeeze into the cockpit of what essentially amounts to an incendiary bomb on wheels to go screaming around tight curves and through mountain tunnels at speeds up to 350mph? Well, aside from the intense adrenaline rush, the international fame and glory, the piles of dough and the unlimited sex (alright…perhaps I haven’t completely thought this through).

Apparently, back in the 70s, there was a “merciless” mano a mano sports rivalry (even sexier than the one betwixt Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky?!) involving a pair of European F1 drivers. Now, I’m taking director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s word for it, because prior to watching the Frost/Nixon team’s latest fact-based drama Rush, I had never heard of Austrian race driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) or his professional nemesis James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) who hailed from the UK. The two were a classic “oil and water” mix. Hunt was the reckless rock star type, reveling in all the hedonistic excess at his disposal. Lauda was decidedly more reserved and methodical, in both his professional and personal life.

The one thing that these two men did share in common was their lofty opinions of themselves. The precise origins of the rivalry are not made 100% clear; so I assume it’s your typical scenario of two males with high-T levels jockeying for the alpha position (don’t the sports announcers routinely refer to the drivers whizzing around the racetrack en masse as the ‘pack’?  “He’s pulling ahead of the pack!”

As one might expect, there’s a lot of ear-plug inducing scenes involving loud cars navigating dangerously narrow roads at suicidal rates of speed, as the two rivals chase each other on assorted Grand Prix courses all around Europe and Asia.

What you might not expect, however, is the compelling dual character study that lies at the heart of the film. The “rivalry” reveals itself to be more of a relationship borne of a begrudging mutual respect; taking on an even more interesting dynamic following Lauda’s near-death experience in a horrific fiery crash on the  deadly Nurburgring circuit in 1976.

Bruhl and Hemsworth both give commendable performances (each actor also bears an uncanny physical likeness to his respective real-life counterpart). Bruhl (who played the Nazi sniper “hero”  in Inglourious Basterds) is proving himself a versatile character actor, and Hemsworth’s infectious energy and brash scenery-chewing recalls a young Peter O’Toole. The excellent Alexandra Maria Lara (The Baader Meinhof Complex) plays Lauda’s devoted wife Marlene, and Olivia Wilde appears as Hunt’s supermodel trophy wife, Suzy.

I found Howard’s film reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, another sports movie that isn’t really so much about sports per se, as it is an examination of the obsessive nature of a person who strives to be a “champion”. In that 1969 character study, Robert Redford plays a talented but arrogant athlete who joins the U.S. ski team, immediately butting heads with the coach (Gene Hackman), his teammates and pretty much anyone else he comes in contact with (OK, he’s a dick). Like Hunt and Lauda (at least, as they are dramatized here), the Redford character only seems truly fulfilled when he’s “winning”…everything else is superfluous.

I also see a corollary with Howard and Morgan’s previous collaboration, suggesting a diptych. The adversarial dynamic between David Frost and Richard Nixon is similar to Lauda and Hunt’s. Frost was handsome, outgoing and had a rep as a “ladies man” (like Hunt) and Nixon was brooding and stand-offish, yet quietly crafty (like Lauda). Frost and Nixon circled each other warily, like two boxers vying for the champion’s belt. I’m not sure how I got from Formula One to politics. Say, is there some kind of trophy for what I just did?

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