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Rush lives up to the hype — all of it

Wheels editor and incurable racing fan Norris McDonald shares his thoughts on Ron Howard's F1 epic

Published September 9, 2013

To borrow from a line written by author Tom Wolfe about moonshine-runner-turned-NASCAR-driver Junior Johnson, the Ron Howard motion picture Rush is the best auto racing movie ever made, yes!

Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, Rush — about the 1976 battle for the Formula One world driving championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda — got its North American premiere Sunday night at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Howard and his stars were in attendance, as were members of the late Hunt’s family and Lauda himself, who flew into Toronto from Milan after watching his Mercedes F1 team suffer through a dismal weekend at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Related: What’s your pick for the best racing movie ever?

Lauda, in particular, seemed moved by the film’s story and particularly by Brühl’s portrayal of him, which I suggest is worthy of a best supporting actor nomination at the upcoming Golden Globes and Academy Awards. I am no film critic, but I covered Formula One races in the 1970s and stood beside Hunt and Lauda on numerous occasions and I can tell you flat out that in his performance, Brühl didn’t act like Lauda, he became Lauda.

Hemsworth was similarly remarkable in his portrayal of Hunt but Hunt was a one-dimensional personality while there were — and are — many layers to Niki Lauda. Brühl nailed all of them.

The publicity leading up to the premier suggested fans remember that Rush is a movie and not a documentary. I beg to differ. This was as close to a documentary about the 1976 season and the true stories of James Hunt and Niki Lauda leading up to that fateful year as you’re ever going to get.

The storyline, and the film’s plot, traces Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry forming while in European racing’s minor leagues and continuing through to the fight for the world championship in 1976. Hunt was an English kid with no ambition to do anything except drive racing cars fast and shag as many women as he could along the way.

Lauda was heir to an Austrian business empire who went against the wishes of his family to race. He bought his way into the big leagues with the aim of winning the world championship by borrowing money from a bank and using a life-insurance policy his parents had given him as collateral.

He’d won one world championship title, in 1975, by the time Hunt secured a decent ride with McLaren in 1976, the year of their showdown. Lauda was winning the ’76 championship by a wide margin when the circus arrived at the Nurburgring in August for the German Grand Prix, a race Lauda had sought to have cancelled because of concerns he had about safety at the circuit.

The other drivers voted to race (in real life, this happened a week before; in the movie, it is the day of). On the second lap, Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and crashed, suffering severe burns to his face and head. He inhaled flames and gases, damaging his lungs. He was not expected to live and received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

Miraculously, 42 days after the German inferno, Lauda returned to the cockpit and raced to a fourth-place finish in the Italian Grand Prix. Although not included in the picture, he raced at Canada (Mosport) three weeks after that, finishing eighth (Hunt won).

Hunt and Lauda arrived at the Japanese GP with the title still up for grabs. The weather was atrocious. It was raining so hard the drivers couldn’t see in front of them. After two laps, Lauda dropped out and declared that conditions were too dangerous to race.  Hunt continued on and eventually finished third, winning the championship by a single point.

Lauda, of course, won the championship again in 1977 and, following a brief retirement, scored another title in 1985 before retiring for good. Hunt carried on having a good time and the 1976 championship was his one and only.

Pretty good story, eh? And the film is true to what really happened, which makes it all the more enjoyable. Movie-goers haven’t been treated to a really good racing movie since the 1960s (Grand Prix, Winning) and this one is a home run. I give it five stars — and here’s why.

There is nothing corny or hokey about this film. The racing scenes are superlative. The accidents are real, in that they are recreations of what really happened, without torquing them beyond belief as has happened in previous motion pictures. I met Alexander, Lord Hesketh, and Bubbles Horsley and all those guys who went racing with Hunt in the beginning and the portrayal of that period and those people is just so bang on.

And Alexandra Maria Lara, as Marlene Knaus, Lauda’s first wife, gives an astonishing, breathtaking, performance. Utterly magnificent. Essentially a non-speaking role, you know how she is worrying and hurting by looking at her. Her stoicism in the film is so very much like it really was for the Helen Stewarts (Jackie) and Bette Hills (Graham) of the day.

And the scene in which they have to hitch-hike after their car breaks down on a country road is so hilarious, it’s worth the price of admission.

Of course, you can’t review a movie without having one or two nits. James Hunt might have socked a marshal (at Mosport, in 1977, in fact) but to my knowledge he never attacked a journalist — as happened in the movie. And I don’t believe a journalist would have ever been so insensitive as to ask some of the questions that were asked of Lauda in the film.

But I guess there has to be a bad guy, or bad guys, in every picture and the media are it this time.

And two or three times, there is dialogue about cheating death and racing to be near death in order to enjoy life even more and I don’t know where this stuff comes from. We got that in Grand Prix, too. Every racing driver I ever met, including me, is very happy to be alive, thank you, and wants to continue living as long as possible. As the great Indy car driver Eddie Sachs once said, “I get going so fast that it feels like I’m going right out of this world . . . not that I want to really do that, you understand.”

Minor criticisms aside, Rush is a winner on every front and I urge all motorsport fans reading this to take it in when it goes into the theatres in a few weeks. I’m going to see it again, you can bet on that.

One last thing before I sign off: Ron Howard might be 59 years old but he’ll always be Opie Taylor, that wide-eyed little innocent he played on the Andy Griffith Show. Why do I say this? Because when the film ended at Roy Thomson Hall, and the cast came out for a final bow — complete with Niki Lauda — there was Ron Howard at the side of the stage, taking a picture of them all with his smart phone.

Just like you and I might do when we see somebody famous at TIFF.

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