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David Ives - published on 09/27/13

A great biography of the two infamous racers, but if you're a car-racing newbie then google 'Formula One' before you head to the movies.

I have to confess, I don't know a whole lot about the sport of auto racing, and because I live in the northern part of the state of Georgia, what little familiarity I do have with it is informed almost entirely by NASCAR. Oh, I'm aware there are other variations of motorsport, but NASCAR approaches near cult-like status in these parts. I mean, I can't tell you the last time I actually watched a race myself, but even I've had to eat a few emu burgers over at the Dawsonville Pool Room just because I have racing enthusiast pals who prefer their restaurants to be decorated with legendary NASCAR driver Bill Elliot's used tires and busted fenders (Google the place if you think I'm kidding). In short, I know next to nothing about Formula One even though, apparently, it's the most popular type of auto racing outside the United States.

The movies haven't been a big help educating me on Formula One either. With big productions like Days of Thunder, Talladega Nights, and Pixar's Cars, NASCAR hogs most of the spotlight when it comes to mainstream motorsport movies. As for non-NASCAR offerings, the recent Turbo centered around IndyCar (but was mostly about snails) and Sylvester Stallone's Driven (which almost nobody, including myself, bothered to watch) was set in the world of the now defunct CART racing circuit. Even when Hollywood actually makes a racing movie set in Europe, like say Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, they still can't seem to make it about Formula One (The Love Bug competed in a Rally Car event if you just have to know).

So with that big gap in my knowledge regarding car racing, when I first heard that Academy Award winning director Ron Howard was making a movie based on the real life rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the first thought that entered my mind was… who? Hey, what do you want, I'm American. I couldn't tell you who the best soccer players in the world are right now either. And don't even bring up cricket. I'm still half convinced that's just some imaginary sport they made up for a few episodes of Monty Python.

Fortunately, I followed my own advice and Googled James Hunt and Niki Lauda. As it turns out, they were a pretty big deal in the world of Formula One. Entering the sport at roughly the same time in the early 70s, Hunt and Lauda quickly rose to the top of the leader boards, and by 1976 were easily the best two drivers on the circuit. There the similarities ended, however. Hunt's public persona was one of a hedonistic playboy who brooked no authority other than his own desires. Lauda, on the other hand, was perceived as a highly disciplined, almost machine like, perfectionist with little interest in anything outside of racing. The love/hate rivalry that arose between the two men, both on the track and off, made the 1976 Formula One season one of the most fondly remembered years in the history of the sport.

And as if the back and forth competition to see which of the two disparate drivers would claim the championship wasn't dramatic enough, on August 1, 1976, disaster struck. After having unsuccessfully lobbied to have the race canceled due to heavy rains, Niki Lauda lost control of his vehicle, careened off a wall, and was struck by another car. The resulting burns he received on his head and in his lungs caused Lauda to slip into a coma and nearly die. And yet, despite his injuries (and against doctor's orders), Lauda was back on the track within six weeks in an attempt to defend his lead in the points from a rapidly approaching Hunt. As if tailor made for Hollywood, it all came down to the final race of the season which, as fate would have it, would have to take place in a torrential downpour even heavier than the one which contributed to Lauda's accident.

So armed with all my new Internet knowledge (though I willfully avoided discovering who won the final showdown), I made my way to the local cinema to see Rush, Ron Howard's version of the story. In all honesty, having previously watched Howard butcher secular history with A Beautiful Mind and Church history with his adaptations of Dan Brown's execrable Robert Langdon novels, I didn't set my hopes too high for a faithful rendering of the real life events. But for some reason, perhaps as penance for his previous biographical sins, Howard has delivered one of the most freakishly accurate biopics I've seen in a long time. Oh sure, there's a questionable scene or two (there always is in these types of movies), but from what I can tell, the film sticks to things basically as they happened.

Rush isn't just a Formula One documentary, though. While Howard does indeed put a lot of energy into directing the racing scenes (they almost make me want to start watching the sport), his main focus is on the interplay between the opposing personalities of Hunt and Lauda. Chris Hemsworth gives a career best performance as the larger than life James Hunt, letting us see there was perhaps a bit more to the man than the unrepentant partier who constantly appeared on the front pages of the tabloids. But while Hemsworth's face is the one we see on the movie's one-sheet (I suppose if I had Thor in my movie, I'd plaster his pretty mug on all the posters too), it's Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda who steals the show. Lauda was apparently a tough man to like, his brusque way of speaking and almost naive matter-of-fact way of dealing with other human beings rendering him socially inept. Brühl plays it just right, never letting the character lapse into parody, and it wouldn't be too much of a shock to see him get some attention for the role come Oscar time.

As portrayed in the movie, the two men come to understand that in a strange way they actually need each other. They've both been seeking a prize that will bring fulfillment to their lives, but on their own they've proven insufficient to get there. If we imagine their journey as a spiritual quest, it's easy to see Hunt and Lauda as two sides of the same being. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it tells us that the search for God demands of man every effort of intellect, a sound will, and an upright heart. But while both Hunt and Lauda had will power to spare, Hunt was almost totally a man devoted to the pursuits of the heart while Lauda was nearly pure intellect. They needed each other for balance to see the journey through to the end.

And see it through to the end they did, at least spiritually speaking. As far as the actual final race goes, though, there could be only one winner. To find out which one that was, you'll have to go see the movie. Which you should do, even if you have to Google Formula One before going so you don't feel like a total noob sitting in the theater. 

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