(First published in The New Indian Express)
Cars have long been synonymous with women. In fact when Steve Taylor from Coupling goes on his infamous Inferno rant, he names the four pillars of the male heterosexual psyche – naked women, stockings, lesbians and Sean Connery best as James Bond. It is a pity there is no space for cars in there. In a generalized world, cars will probably replace stockings. It maybe old fashioned and possibly obsolete an idea but the flexing of the male ego and the illusion of control is objectified with cars. The point is how well Ron Howard uses these seemingly obvious and unimaginative trope with amazing results. He actually uses them repeatedly and it works every time and goes a long way in making Rush one of his most compelling films in recent times.
Two similar instances with opposite outcomes stand out among these. First is when the initial stages of the 1976 F1 season is underway and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is well ahead of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) who’s had a disastrous start. It is worse for Hunt because he discovers his wife’s relationship with Richard Burton and there is a scene soon after their separation (Chris Hemsworth is surprisingly wonderful in playing the living-it-up driver who is always on the edge – of his life and his mind) when Hunt joins the mile high club with a flight attendant. Howard interlaces these scenes with Hunt’s season soon after, all pistons blazing when he registers podium finishes and gains on Lauda in the drivers’ championships. The other scene contrasts the two drivers’ characters like many other moments do in the film – the quiet, family oriented Niki Lauda vs the hot headed playboy in James Hunt. This happens at the deciding race in Japan with Lauda leading by just 3 points and severely weakened both physically and mentally after his accident at Nürburgring just months before. As Lauda races through inclement weather with the Fuji mountain in the backdrop, Howard shows a worried looking Marlene – Niki Lauda’s wife -through Lauda’s helmet (or eyes actually) as he struggles, along with us, to get a clear view of the track in front. This ultimately goes on to decide the race for him.
This is how Ron Howard chooses to show the lives and rivalry of two storied F1 champions – through their respective philosophies of life and how they live it. Hunt lives dangerously both on track and off it. Lauda is more cautious, always choosing consistency and efficiency over speed. When Hunt meets Suzy whom he marries soon after, she seems to already know him, his character and his reputation. When Marlene and Niki Lauda meet, she is just giving a lift to the guy who wants to leave the party early. It takes two guys who help the stranded couple to tell her she is with the Ferrari F1 driver. To the surprise of no one, she finds it hard to believe. That there is mutual respect between the two guys who are the very definition of antithesis is also established respective to their character. Lauda’s respect for Hunt is established in an almost offhand manner when he explains in the most deadpan way possible as to why he was racing in Monza and why Hunt must feel responsible for both his accident and his return. Hunt’s respect shows up more in your face when he beats up a journalist for his preposterous question to Lauda during the press conference about his post-accident racing career. Once again, the sexual energy is palpable.
The filming is first rate. Anthony Dod Mantle’s camerawork and the shots of the circuits and races makes you feel the speed and admirably does not stay one note. It uses a combination of cuts between cars, the insides of cars, pit lanes, the spectators and chequered flag that it doesn’t let you linger in a moment and forces you to hurriedly move on – just like a racing car should. The moments just before a race are shown in superb detail. The cars neatly lined up, drivers putting on their helmets and having nervous chats with their engineers and mechanics, the lights going on etc. The Japanese Grand Prix with Mt. Fuji in the horizon and torrential rain is breathtaking beauty.
If you are an F1 fan this is a great retelling of the rivalry between two champions and more importantly, two great characters. If you are not, enjoy the thrill ride because like an F1 race, there is never a dull moment. Watch it in the theaters and preferably in one that has seat belts.