Film review: Rush

Julian Harris
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AMID the resigned sighs of many Formula One fans throughout the world, Sebastian Vettel is currently cruising his Red Bull towards a drearily comfortable fourth straight world title. Two consecutive wins have put the relatively young German 53 points clear of Fernando Alonso, whose attitude towards his Ferrari increasingly resembles my own sentiment whenever I borrow my mum’s Skoda Felicia.

It is therefore the perfect moment to indulge in more thrilling times past, when nail-gnawing hair-raising championship finales had spectators on the edge of their seats. And what better example than the 1976 season? Alastair Caldwell – who was McLaren team boss at the time – described the events of 1976 as so extraordinary that no one ever believed it possible that a film could capture the drama.

But now they have. The apparently unfeasible task is taken on by director-writer team Ron Howard and Peter Morgan, most famed for Frost/Nixon; yet while that film enjoyed the time and space to explore complex characters, relationships and manoeuvrings, Rush has the problem of also needing to cram in a racing rivalry that spanned years, not to mention an entire season of F1. And it is a problem.

First some positives. Howard superbly captures the colour and pure thrill of motor-racing, with an abundance of adrenaline kicks from screaming engines and speeding cars. In one well-delivered line – “Men love women. But even more than that, men love cars” – Lord Alexander Hesketh, played by Christian McKay, hits a note that the Fast and the Furious crew have spent over 10 hours failing to reach.

Nonetheless, Rush has troubles of its own, the primary of which is reflected in its title. Despite a run-time of over two hours, it frequently feels like it is speeding through events purely for the sake of making it to the finish line. There is, of course, an argument that a racing film should be fast moving, but there is little time left to explore the nuances of the sport, and the depiction of characters and events is often too black-and-white to be satisfying.

James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) isn’t much more than a stereotype; the effortlessly charming, twinkle-in-his-eye, booze-fuelled sports maverick. He lives life on the edge. He just wants to have fun. You get the picture. Substitute in George Best, maybe even Alex Higgins, or in fact any of a string of rebellious sportsmen and the effect would be pretty much the same. Even the womanising becomes tiresome; whenever the film-makers are worried Hunt appears too distracted by his racing or his marriage, a quick shag scene is chucked in just to remind us of his off-track point-scoring.

Some culpability may lie with Hemsworth, who is out-shone by the exceptional Daniel Bruhl, who plays Niki Lauda. The Austrian’s character, and his relationships, are explored significantly more than those of his racing nemesis – and thus most of the film’s feel-good moments belong to the geeky and obsessive buck-toothed driver. The consequence is strange for many British viewers, in that one finds oneself – despite already knowing the outcome – sometimes willing on Lauda’s Ferrari to beat Hunt’s McLaren. No doubt the more patriotic and hardcore McLaren fans will vehemently disagree but I was drawn far more towards Lauda and his wife Marlene (played convincingly by Alexandra Maria Lara), instinctively taking their side.

Alas the lack of nuance often extends to the action itself. If the viewer doesn’t know better, for example, Rush is in danger of giving the impression that Hunt’s racing talent was superior to Lauda’s – a debatable suggestion, to say the least. And Hunt's notoriously dangerous driving, while alluded to on one or two occasions, is rather generously glossed over, or treated as an amusement. The drivers’ relationship, a (somewhat fictitious) bitter rivalry that inevitably evolves into mutual respect, is also too reliant on a rather lazy dichotomy of the British playboy natural talent versus the diligent Viennese scientist. From someone of Howard’s pedigree I expect a little more.