Car people like us don’t get enough auto-centric movies, least of all thought provoking ones. Hollywood producers seem to be under the impression that we’re all 14, but while we do love a great unrealistic car chase, the Fast and Furious franchise and Gone in 60 Seconds do lack a certain depth. That’s fine on occasion. There’s nothing like muscular mindlessness to help you unwind after a horrible week of punching washers, shuffling papers, or whatever it is that you wish you didn’t have to do.
Still, we’d prefer a little more substance, wouldn’t we? Because we know that cars, as calculating and mechanical as they are, provide their drivers and admirers with very real, very human experiences. We want to see a little more of this. What does it mean to be a performance driver? What happens to the human heart at 180 mph? Sly Stallone’s disastrous Driven didn’t give us much of a glimpse.
Thankfully, a small, baldheaded ginger has stepped in to save the day. Ron Howard has restored my hope for automotive cinema with his next film, Rush, about Formula One in 1976, a season which probably coined the phrase, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Howard’s Cinderella Man is my favorite sports movie, with the possible exception of Steve McQueen’s vintage endurance verité, Le Mans. I’m no boxing fan, either. It’s wasn’t the action of Cinderella Man that drew me, but rather Russell Crowe’s gentle, aging family man pugilist, Jim Braddock, and his struggle against the Great Depression. Howard told his inspiring true story with such honest enthusiasm.
I hope to see the same with Rush. 1976 was a maddening cycle for Formula One. Driver protection was largely an afterthought, with team owners like Colin Chapman demanding victory at all costs, and little safety technology to stand up to them. Politics swung out of control, as some rulings changed standings months after their respective races. And the cars were insane. The Ferrari 312T, for example, weight about 1,300 lbs, but put down 510 hp. Coupled with nothing but a pair of primitive wings for downforce, it must have been terrifying to watch. Driving it would have been another matter entirely.
But most fans remember 1976 as the great duel between British driver James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda. Two opponents couldn’t have been written to antagonize each other with more ferocity or consistency. Hunt, played by Thor’s Chris Hemsworth in the film, was loud, arrogant, and promiscuous. (Apparently he holds the record for most British Airways stewardesses defiled during a single season.) By contrast, Lauda, portrayed in Rush by German actor Daniel Brühl, was relatively quiet and reserved, a spokesman for driver safety and a fledgling businessman.
Hunt and Lauda traded pole positions and victories throughout the season. Hunt had pole for the first two races, but Lauda won them both. Hunt finally took a victory in Spain, but Lauda won the text two. Then Hunt took race #8 in France, and won the British GP on his own turf. Ferrari, for whom Lauda drove, lodged a complaint against Hunt, who had illegally used a backup car after a pileup early in the race. The FIA waited a full two months to issue their decision, which awarded Lauda the win.
The following race, the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, broke things up. Though Lauda had campaigned for greater safety standards on the Green Hell, and even threatened to boycott, nothing was improved, and he raced anyway. Then, on his second lap, he crashed, burning in high octane fuel for 40 seconds until a group of other drivers pulled him from his car. Hunt won the race, but all eyes were on Lauda, who hovered in a coma.
Six weeks later, the Austrian returned for the Italian Grand Prix, most of his right ear gone, and wearing a special helmet that wouldn’t irritate the brand new skin grafts on his scalp. He took fourth. Hunt won the next two races from pole, and despite his loss to Mario Andretti in the final race of the season, his third place finish still had a high enough score for the season to beat Lauda by just one point, giving him the title.
It’s a tale of immense irony, of very human battles of ideology, both on and off the track.
But it wasn’t all drama. The cars, as mentioned, were insane, seemingly caricatures of themselves, with huge, meaty rear tires and mohawk air intakes. Strange beasts like the six-wheeled Tyrrel P34 showed up and surprised everyone. The P34, with Jody Scheckter behind the wheel, won the Swedish GP.
The fact that a replica P34 has shown up on the set of Rush, combined with Howard’s excellent and accurate work on Apollo 13, confirms my suspicion that this won’t just be a drama with a little racing thrown in.
Apollo 13 was the first glimpse many of my generation had into the flipswitch, analog world of the technical aspects of the Space Race. We got to see Jim Lovell’s crew assemble a filter from spare parts and duct tape, and we witnessed in detail the ballet that was lander-orbiter separation and docking.
Yet when we remember Apollo 13, we don’t think of the technicals. We picture Tom Hanks’ eyes when everything goes wrong, Ed Harris’ helpless, land-bound exasperation in Houston.
It’s this humanity, this flesh-to-gears reality that makes Ron Howard the perfect choice to direct one of the most human rivalries in the history of motorsport.
Rush is filming now, and is set for a 2013 release.