The James Clayton Column: Rush and great screen rivalries

The release of Formula One biopic Rush leaves James pondering other great screen rivalries, in sports movies and beyond...

Cars go round and round and round a track really, really, really fast. Some people, understandably, find this very exciting and other people, understandably, find this to be really dull and repetitive.

Rush – the new film directed by Ron Howard – successfully reaches out to both camps and makes motor racing into a classic cinema spectacle that can be appreciated by speedfreaks and non-motorheads alike. Even if you despise Formula One I don’t think you’d emerge from the cinema feeling that the picture you’ve just watched was something dull (unless you’re being deliberately contrarian or hold extra-extreme hatred towards F1, though you should let go of hatred, my young Padawan, for hatred is the path to the Dark Side).

Likewise, F1 aficionados get something more than the repetition of cars going round and round and round a track really, really, really fast. They can watch that on TV on weekend afternoons and Rush is a more stylish and streamlined cinematic celebration of their passion for big screen presentation. As a bonus, in the cinema there are no advert breaks and no asinine punditry and they’re probably two worst aspects of television sport coverage. Ultimately, everyone’s a winner with Rush and sport is about winning or feeling like a winner even if you’re a loser. I hope by now I’ve convinced you that it’s a great sports film.

If not, let me break it down further and drive out any doubts about this being a genre flick of limited worth to anyone who’s not among the enthusiast in-crowd. What Howard and his collaborators have done with Rush is crafted something that shouldn’t be categorically dismissed as ‘petrolhead porn’ or as ‘another Oscar-bait sports biopic that aspires to be inspirational and life-affirming’. It succeeds on those fronts but it’s not confined to such tight niches and deserves consideration for its nuances. In truth, it’s the subtleties and striking human element and not machine-fetishism that make Rush such a, erm, rush.

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To produce a good sports movie with wide appeal beyond the core fanbase you’ve got to use a few special filmmaking tricks and employ certain devices. You have to do this with skill and finesse. Director Howard expertly handles an array of those tricks and devices in his recreation of the 1970s F1 scene and in doing so he forges thrilling drama out of raw historical material. He does this with skill and finesse.

(I hope you’re appreciating the parallel methodical pursuit of perfection that characterises both the professional sportsperson and the filmmaker, here. These people are not amateurs – they’re disciplined athletes who’ve honed their craft over years of practise, conditioning and meticulous study.)

How does he make a specialist sport come to life as a compelling big screen experience? For a start, it helps that he’s got ace biopic writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Last King Of Scotland) acting as playmaker and providing the screenplay.

Then in the engine room – the pits? The garage? The factory floor? – Howard has the industry’s finest working wonders with the technical aspects to engineer an all-round hyper-sensory piece of cinema. Combined, the innovative action cinematography and the immense sound and production design evoke the atmosphere of racetrack life and the 70s era in amazing style.

Rush rocks as an incredibly immersive, invigorating experience but what makes it essential viewing is the core story – the clash between two wildly dissimilar antagonistic personalities. More than simply a document exploring motor racing or a particular moment in sporting history, Rush is a motion picture about duelling rivals. It’s about the intense clash of two individuals in high-pressure circumstances – that clash being James Hunt versus Niki Lauda.

(Feel free to rename this Peter Morgan-Ron Howard collaboration ‘Hunt/Lauda’ if you prefer. With that title you’re less likely to get confused and think that you’re going to see a film about a Canadian prog rock band or a biopic of the woman who contributed “Colours of the Wind” to the Pocahontas soundtrack.)

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James Hunt is a hedonistic British playboy with lustrous blonde locks and oozing sex appeal. He is played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor!) and when he’s not driving round a circuit at ridiculous speed he’s the life and soul of the party and the party usually involves women, booze, drugs and an entourage of obsequious upper class buddies.

Niki Lauda is a no-nonsense Austrian perfectionist with an exceptional pragmatic mind and a ratty face. He is played by Daniel Brühl (the German propaganda war hero of Inglourious Basterds!) and when he’s not driving around a circuit at ridiculous speed he can usually be found fine-tuning his machine or bluntly insulting everyone and everything around him. (Everyone is an “asshole” and his car is a “shitbox”.)

They are, in fact, both assholes. Both are highly-flawed human beings with numerous unlikable facets. That said, they simultaneously somehow manage to be likable characters that you can’t help become fascinated by and this is what makes Rush a riveting feature and a superior sports movie.

Thanks to a superb screenplay and two astounding performances – Brühl and Hemsworth both bringing their A game – viewers are compelled to care about motor racing and, most crucially, two challenging, strong personalities that at times seem irrational and perverse. You want to spend time with the pair, get into their psyche, learn about their past (both real and fictionalised) and find out just who these men are or rather, were. What engenders such a personality? What drives someone to do something so dangerous for a living? What motivates these men and makes them willing to compete under ominous clouds on the mortal edge?

The answer lies in the rivalry between the two. Lauda and Hunt hate each other. They’re always it – running up against each other on the track and in the pits, trading sharp barbs and pulling dirty tricks whenever an opportunity arises. The mutual antipathy is so great that it pushes the pair to the limit and has them striving all the harder to outdo their ultimate adversary.

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The hate is so strong that it becomes, in a bizarre way, a form of love in that it gives both racers purpose and adds an enticing impetus to the contest. (This undermines my ‘hatred is the path to the Dark Side’ point but Yoda, for all his Jedi mentor wisdom, never led anybody to a grand prix podium finish. Ignore him for now, we will.)

Both men are defined by this rivalry and it’s accentuated by the stark contrast between Hunt’s Casanova-esque excess and Lauda’s antisocial coolness. It spurs them on and gives them extra gumption as they persevere through their own personal problems. The detestation is so intense that Lauda watches footage of Hunt winning races while he’s in hospital undergoing grim procedures to suck toxic detritus out of his lungs in the aftermath of his crash at Nurburgring.

It’s a real ‘this sport ain’t big enough for the both of us’ scenario. They can’t peaceably co-exist with each other and yet they can’t live without each other – definitely true for Lauda, returning to race even though his burns haven’t healed. Such is the power of grudges and, I guess, such is the power of the obsessive competitor character-type.

Hunt and Lauda’s relationship may have been embellished for dramatic effect but, still, it makes a nice change from the standard Cinderella rags-to-riches sport movie narrative that we’ve seen time and time again. Interestingly, here Rush’s dynamics remind me of disparate films like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Monsters University more than other automobile movies or sport biopics. (Yes, the Pixar film that Rush is closest to is surprisingly not Cars.)

Its rooting around a rivalry also has me recalling crime classics like Heat, Catch Me If You Can and American Gangster – all films that chronicle the gripping battle between two equally appealing (or equally unappealing) leading nemeses. The only sport film with a similar approach that instantly comes to mind is Korean high school table tennis tale Ping Pong which, likewise, is built around a pair of sharply defined rivals.

I find it odd that fewer sport flicks have taken this approach when rivalry is something that’s so vital to organised sport. Those films may be floating around out of sight in my blindspot but while I struggle to spot ’em, Rush resonates as something unique.

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What also makes Howard’s motor-movie remarkable is the fact that I can’t decide whose side I’m on. Lauda and Hunt are both assholes and they’re both heroes with no real ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guy emerging clearly. I sympathise with and support them both so the excitement of Rush is not waiting to see who wins (some historical research can tell you that) but in seeing their human drama unfold and the interplay and parallel development of a pair of absolute opposites.

Hunt/Lauda is a yin/yang dichotomy coming together for holistic oneness and the outcome is a balanced, all-encompassing biopic of profound power. The rush of Rush, is indeed in its repellent rivals. I recommend this exemplary, high-adrenaline motor movie about arguing assholes to everyone. (Even you, asshole.)

James Clayton is currently doing all he can to beat his greatest rival – himself. It’s an epic battle but it’s nowhere near as cinematic or glamorous as Rush so he advises that you go and see that at the cinema instead of watching him trash-talk the mirror. 

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You can read James’ last column here.