Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rush: the new 'Apollo 13'

I have been following Formula 1 racing since the late 1980's - and I have watched most races after Keke Rosberg's (champion 1982) protegee Mika Häkkinen started his career there in 1991. It's something I have discussed with my friends and other young people. But today, when I entered the auditorium 15 at Goodrich Quality 16 in Savoy, I saw mostly older people, in their fifties, sixties and seventies, in the audience. I double checked my ticket and yes, this was the right auditorium.

It is up to speculation why such large portion of the audience were not - as I anticipated - young adults. This is, after all, an intense film about racing, with some gore, sex, boobs and even drugs thrown in.

The film

This film is a depiction of the real story of two racing drivers' rivalry from 1970 to 1976, with special focus in the second half of the 1976 Formula 1 season.. It focuses very intensely on these two drivers and little on anything or anyone else. Just like the same director's (Ron Howard) Apollo 13 had James Lovell, NASA, Rockwell, Cape Canaveral, and just the right brand of peanuts, Rush has James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Marlboro Team McLaren, Scuderia Ferrari, Watkins Glen, Crystal Palace.

In addition to real people, real racing teams and real events, the real danger is depicted in the film. Many drivers really died during races (or during practice and qualification sessions) and Hunt often cites this as a driving force in his profession. Of his playboy lifestyle with passion and danger, he says "this is a nice way to live, but the only way to race". Seize the moment, because it may be your last - and we see on screen how people die - and yet the show goes on.

The 1970's as it happened

When I visited London in 2004, I found an interesting book at a bookstore. It was about the Formula One in 1970's, as told by a British photojournalist's photos. They were not faded black and white newspaper photos of red-tinted Polaroids but vivid glimpses into a colorful and exciting but also dirty and dangerous world, where big personalities fought but the order in which they crossed the finish line decided who won and championship points decided who was the champion. It was the very same world that I enterd in Rush.

Now, it is clear that the film takes some artistic liberties when depicting Hunt's and Lauda's rivalry, but exaggerating their differences and excluding almost everyone else - drivers and others alike - from the story. Especially the women are stereotypical supporting characters (often targets of Hunt's lust) - just like you might imagine wifes of racing drivers to be. The later part of the film revolves around individual races in 1975 and 1976 and the unpredictable and sometimes anticlimatic nature of racing may be problematic to screenwriting. Sometimes drivers just retire after a few laps because of technical problems, and these are depicted in the film - I am sure that if this was not based on a true story, the actual races would have been made more exciting!

Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek, Thor) is James Hunt. As Thor, he was somewhat awkward (as Thor is an awkward superhero), but here he is natural as a racer with passion, living in the moment. The experienced actor Daniel Brühl (Inglouriour Basterds) is Niki Lauda, methodological, disciplined businessman and talented Formula 2 racer who gets a surprise stint in Formula 1, being followed by Hunt, who despises his arrogant but intellectual attitude. I remember Hunt from some old photos and I remember I wondered how anybody would actually have hair like that - and how such a funny-looking guy could be a "playboy". But I was a kid, then.

Even though everything about this film is just supporting, the real persons depicted around Lauda and Hunt are portrayed very nicely. We meet Clay Regazzoni, Lauda's early teammate, Marlene, future Mrs. Lauda, Suzy, Hunt's first wife, and numerous team bosses and racers. Suzy ends up being a victim of Hunt's lifestyle (which apparently continued until his death in 1989), while Lauda is a determined family man. It seems that the film's portrayal of Hunt having sex with all ladies he meets is overshadowed by reality - he actually had sex with about five thousand women during his life.

Another Apollo 13

How good is this film? Very good. Just like Apollo 13, it brings into life a very specific historical period or event with ugly, beautiful and sometimes horrific things taking place, while anchoring the events to the world where they happen. Formula One of 2013 may be very different from 1976, but something is universal: fascination of auto racing - and while safer, the current series still has the speed and danger - and beautiful women.

And Niki Lauda. The serious, calculating Austrian racer, and survivor of the horrible accident during the German Grand Prix in 1976 which is the culmination of this film. In the 1980's - after retiring once - Lauda returned to F1 and won yet another championship in 1985. He became a businessman and airline CEO and still carries the scars of that near-fatal accident on his face. It is said that he was one of the first racers of the new type - the professional, methodological drivers, of whom Alain Prost, Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher are good examples.

With a combination of real cars, places, people and computer-generated effects, the races are recreated in astonishing detail and naturalness. Especially the Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 looks... real. Cinematography is top-notch and supports the story.

Comparisons

As a film about racing, there are two other films I would compare it with. The first is Lee Katzin's Le Mans from 1971. It focuses on a single Le Mans 24-hour race with Steve McQueen as a fictional driver. The film concentrates on the aesthetics of driving, with much less emphasis on actual story. It is still a landmark in depiction of race driving. (I haven't seen the earlier film Grand Prix which is about Formula 1.)


Another comparison could be Robbie Williams' music video for Supreme, directed by Vaughan Arnell in 2001. Even though the song is not about racing, the video is a four-minute short film about  a fictious Formula 1 driver Bob Williams during the 1970 season, racing against Jackie Stewart. It combines archival footage and new video, placing Williams among real drivers of the 1970s. The character of Bob Williams might even be based on (in addition to Robbie Williams) James Hunt and Niki Lauda!

Conclusions

Why was this film made? What is its message? After seeing it, I don't know. Many times in the story, Hunt and Lauda discuss why they race. Hunt may do it for the passion and rush, Lauda because he is a businessman and it's his profession and while they cannot agree on this, they respect each other (though in real life, they were much less enemies than depicted here). I see different approaches to the same question which in itself is mindless: do you even need a reason?

In the beginning of Apollo 13, a congressman questions the whole space program. Jim Lovell and his crew had the passion, but lawmakers and the public were struggling to understand the motivation to fly to the Moon - as Armstrong & co. had already gone there. Now, the same question is still in air almost fifty years later, when people think about the past and future projects of the grand U.S. space program and ask why. For the overarching, super expensive, multinational and dangerous space programs, the motivation could be summarized "because it is there", which is not that much better than the motivation racers have for their sports.

A fascinating story about how skilled and fearless individuals tackle laws of physics and turn into immortal champions of the mankind. Am I talking about Rush or Apollo 13?