Formula One racing and movies are two of my favourite things. So when today’s Oscar nominations were released, I was understandably disappointed to see Ron Howard’s Rush miss out among the films competing for the industry’s biggest awards.
What makes Rush such a special movie is that it wasn’t purely a flick for F1 fans and petrolheads as may have been the case with others of the genre, such as John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Le Mans of Steve McQueen fame.
The story of Niki Lauda’s epic 1976 championship battle against James Hunt was a script made for a Hollywood movie. It is a tale of two contrasting personalities—Lauda the quiet, insular and complex Austrian focused on nothing but winning against the brash playboy in Hunt, who views F1 as an extension of his excessive way of living life in the fast lane.
It’s also a tale of triumph and tragedy as Lauda overcame horrific injuries sustained in his fiery accident at the Nurburgring to take the championship down to a nail-biting climax in Fuji, Japan.
Even Howard himself was surprised by the movie's success, per Pamela McClintock of the Hollywood Reporter:
"I don't think I've ever made a movie that surprises audiences as much as this one does," says Howard of test screenings in the U.S. "People who love motor sports are surprised it is as authentic and intense and effective as it is. People who don't know much about the sport find it sexier and more engaging and emotional than they thought it would be. It's a marketing challenge for Universal, but I think they are doing a great job."
Of course, no matter how dramatic the script, a movie lives or dies by the performances of the assembled cast, and Rush delivers the goods. Chris Hemsworth is excellent in his portrayal of Hunt as the dashing playboy, but it is Daniel Bruhl who really steals the show as Lauda, and he had to delve deep into the man’s psyche in face-to-face meetings with the three-time world champion to do so.
Some of the most harrowing moments of Rush focus on Lauda’s recovery from his horrifying crash at the Nurburgring. His face was rebuilt with skin grafts, and for the painful daily routine of having his lungs vacuumed, Lauda encouraging the nurses to repeat the process so he could get back to the circuit more quickly.
“I used all of his qualities. His fearlessness. His bravery. I’m a fearful man, but I’ve learnt to be stronger since playing him. His humour, too,” Bruhl is quoted as saying in the Daily Mail.
He pointed behind one ear and said: “The doctors took this part of skin and put it around my eyes; and from the butt they took skin and put it here.” I didn’t want to touch his face; my girlfriend didn’t either. But he was cool with it. I played the role of Niki Lauda under the influence of Niki’s personality.
Then there’s the matter of cinematography, the category I was certain Rush would be nominated. Despite Rush being assembled on an independent budget for far less than many of Ron Howard's previous films, the on-track action is utterly authentic and captures an era when sex was safe and driving dangerous, to steal a famous quote from Stirling Moss.
Howard was fortunate to secure the services of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dod Mantle. Mantle, who worked on Slumdog Millionaire, was tasked with recreating the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere of the 1976 season and used all of his expertise to do so.
Mantle told Michael Rosser of SCREENDAILY (subscription required):
What we were shooting had to marry with the archive so the footage didn’t "bump." Aesthetically I didn’t want it to bump—just like I didn’t want the cars to bump... ...Sometimes the camera doesn’t catch something perfectly but you sense something’s happened. There can be an awful silence to a car crash as the camera wanders to find what has happened. I wanted to recreate that atmosphere.
In order to capture the look and feel of racing at the time, he studied old footage and went as far as to use lenses from the same era in conjunction with the latest technology.
I combed the rental houses of Britain and elsewhere to find these lenses. That way, I got the best out of the modern-day camera - the resolution and the latitude - as well as the inherent aberrations in the lenses. If it was good enough for [cinematographer] Gordon Willis and The Godfather, it’s good enough for me.
I’ve watched almost as many new movies as I have F1 races over the last year, and it was certainly good enough for me. Sadly, it wasn’t quite good enough for The Academy.