Postby CAP » Wed Oct 16, 2013 11:50 pm

A story about Formula One racing drivers from the 70s initially didn’t sound all that enticing. It would of course be another guy’s movie and I’d just seen Gravity. I changed my mind after seeing an interview with Daniel Brühl, one of the stars. He plays Austrian driver, Niki Lauda and described how he spent time with the man and in Austria generally, trying to get the accent right, with the right amount of bluntness and arrogance – which he considered an Austrian trait. This coming from a German! I smirked my Eric Von Stroheim sardonic smirk.

Anyway the story is build around the rivalry between Lauda and British driver James Hunt as they rise to Formula One ranking in the 70s and drive for rival teams – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. Strictly speaking the story ought to sink under a deluge of technical detail as both teams push the engineering limits under racing regulations, at different points gain slight advantages. But the story wisely concentrates on the contrasting temperaments and fortunes of the two drivers. Lauda, small, dark and unlovable, dogged and calculating, Hunt, tall, blonde and handsome babe magnet, debonair and dashing, given to revelry and corner cutting (often literally).

One gambles, the other invests wisely, as they say.

In real life they weren’t quite the bitter rivals the film suggests for much of its course, in fact at one stage shared a flat. But amazingly, all the other elements to the story are pretty much there, in the facts. And Brühl does a fantastic job of impersonating Niki – the wavy hair and uncool haircut, the buck teeth, the finger pointing and bluff manner. I’m old enough to remember. Brühl deserves an award. I’ve seen him in various German things, the best of which was Ein Freund von mir (2006) where he also gets to do some high-speed driving, albeit in saloon cars. He’s now my favourite German actor.

Australian Chris Hemsworth plays Hunt and looks more like Brad Pitt in one of his berserker roles –although full size - but it’s a tricky one. Maybe it’s the hair. I didn’t think the voice was quite there either – not so much the accent as the mellifluous condescending purr. Anyone who remembers Hunt from his BBC commentary days will know what I mean. Not that the film stands or falls on mere impersonations. In other respects the story perfectly captures Hunt’s bravado and vanity, his generosity and impetuosity. The scene where he takes aside a reporter who has just tactlessly grilled the horribly injured Lauda about his marriage, and beats the shit out of the hack rings true. Although I could find no record of it actually happening. But it’s exactly the kind of thing Hunt would do. He could be gallant publicly or privately. What he couldn’t be is consistent.

The heart of the matter is their contrasting approaches to racing. Lauda carefully weighs up risks against rewards, plays the percentages and the long game. Hunt is strictly a walk-up daredevil. He drives lucky and he is lucky. People love him for it. He loves people back. Niki patiently analyses every component of his car and fanatically tunes them to conditions and circuit to hone any advantage. And people resent him for it. He’s not exactly modest about his talents either, but he lacks charm. Where James boasts, people forgive him for ultimately being foolish. When Niki boasts, it drives home unwelcome truths. He is smart but Hunt is handsome. But it’s Niki who is almost killed in a smash when his car skids on a wet track in the German Grand Prix in 1976, James who goes on to claim the World Championship, by one point from Lauda. This is almost too poetic to be true. Tellingly, Niki attempts to have the race cancelled because of the weather, prior to the race, but is outvoted by the other drivers, led by Hunt (who has poll position). After the vote Hunt rubs it in by saying it pays to have friends, when it comes to a vote. And friends are one thing Niki doesn’t have on the Formula One circuit.

On the other hand Niki wins the babe (Alexandra Maria Lara playing Austrian socialite Marlene Knaus) while Hunt’s marriage to top model (Olivia Wilde as Suzy Miller) quickly goes pear-shaped. She ditches him for Richard Burton, unbelieveably. Actually the director Ron Howard, originally wanted Russell Crowe to do a cameo as Burton, but it never worked out. Too bad. But Hunt’s relationship is all front and no fireplace, Lauda’s one of surprising modesty and restraint. One of the best scenes is when Lauda meets Knaus at a villa in Italy for the first time and hitches a ride with her to the nearest railway station, after typically antagonising his hosts with more frank assessments. He never reveals he is a Ferrari Formula One driver to her, just hilariously rubbishes her car’s handling and when it breaks down, still miles from anywhere and they must hitchhike, Knaus naturally assumes her superior babe looks will attract a passing car (ever see It Happened One Night?) only to have a car scream to a halt because two Italian men recognise Lauda as a Ferrari driver. They insist he drive their car to the next town and suddenly Knaus is stunned by the fame of her modest, if critical passenger. She then has to goad him into giving them a demonstration of his driving skills, since he sees no point in speeding without the need. A glance into Alexandra Maria Lara’s big brown eyes reassures him on that point. He then treats his passengers to some reckless passing manoeuvres that send the two Italians (in the back seat) into ecstasy.

At one point Lauda tells Hunt to forget about the bullshit celebrations and all the hangers-on and go home and rest for the next race, but he might as well be speaking German. Hunt is party animal maximus. Lauda is into the quiet routine, relishing victory in private. At the end of the film we get glimpses of the actual people and captions telling us that Hunt only ever won the one World Championship and retires in 1979 to take up TV commentary, while Lauda recovers from his devastating facial burns to win two more World Championships in 1977 and 1984 – notably on points rather than outright wins. In the long run, he was the greater driver, although he paid the greater price. Hunt died in 1993 at 45 of a heart attack. Niki went on to start an airline and is still involved in Formula One at an engineering level. He divorced Knaus after twenty years and later remarried. Here he is with Brühl.

In some respects it’s the story of the tortoise and the hare, in others of the ugly duckling, or ‘the lamp that burns twice as bright burns half as long’. The underlying dynamic is powerful and pervasive. It applies to most walks in life. I couldn’t help but find parallels in my own life – what more can you ask of a movie? There are those that have it all and never need cultivate inner resources, there are those that must dig deep and never have time to enjoy the view or smell the roses. That underlying contrast is probably what attracted Ron Howard to the script (written by Peter Morgan) but incredibly Howard couldn’t get backing for the movie in Hollywood – even with his track record. For late comers, Howard is the guy that directed Cocoon, Parenthood, Backdraft, Apollo 13, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and The Da Vinci Code. You’d think that would count for something. He’s about as Hollywood as you can get. But he had to go to Europe to get financing for this one – Canal Studio and Pathé seed it. That might explain why the racing scenes are fairly perfunctory by today’s standards – no awesome CGI and impossible camera moves around 3D modelling. But it also helps concentrate the movie on the characters, so for the best really. I give this one an 8. :)
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Re: Rush

Postby Jiminy » Mon Oct 21, 2013 1:51 pm

Great review, thanks.

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