If you’ve seen Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary 2010 documentary Senna, Rush might cause a little déjà vu. Senna showed that half the drama of F1 happens off the track, telling the story of Ayrton Senna’s rise to pole position, his rivalry with Alain Prost and his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Rush takes on similar themes, exploring another rivalry – between Austrian Niki Lauda and Brit James Hunt – and hinging on another crash – at Nürburgring in 1976.
While Kapadia made effective use of archive footage to bring his story vividly to life in all its complexity, Rush gives its fictionalised Hunt / Lauda rivalry the full Hollywood treatment. It’s a clash of archetypes – careful, uptight Lauda (Daniel Brühl) vs fun, reckless Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) – with cacophonous 70s styling and plenty of slo-mo shots of tyres spinning in the rain.
I’ve never been a fan of director Ron Howard, who has always seemed so firmly planted in the mediocre, occasionally serving up over-egged Oscar bait (hello, A Beautiful Mind). Besides, hitching yourself to Dan Brown not once, but twice, shows a lapse in taste and judgement I find it hard to forget (you too, Tom Hanks). Here though, the weak link is unexpectedly the screenplay by Peter Morgan, writer of The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and one of Howard’s better offerings, Frost/Nixon (he also wrote the original stage play).
Lines like “we were just two drivers, busting each other’s balls” and “I was born ready” are cracks in believability that even actors as charismatic as Brühl and Hemsworth can’t paper over. The characters come alive most convincingly in scenes where I suspect (but despite extensive googling, can’t prove) their dialogue is taken from historical record – pre-race press conferences, Lauda’s first words on waking up in hospital, Hunt’s response to journalists’ questions when his wife runs off with Richard Burton. You can’t help but feel that the film is not doing these interesting men justice.
Though both characters are given backstory and narration rights, by the third act it’s the Niki Lauda show, with Hunt stuck swaggering around as the sort of live fast, play hard stereotype we’ve all seen before (though Hemsworth does it with aplomb – and a plum in his mouth). Ten years after Goodbye Lenin!, it’s exciting to see Brühl in a ‘mainstream’ leading role, and he does a remarkable job, making a character who on the surface seems unlikeable into someone sympathetic and intriguing.
While Rush is undeniably entertaining, it feels like a weak echo of Senna – it’s amped up Hollywood narrative is doomed to be overshadowed by Kapadia’s compelling documentary. If you’re looking to while away a rainy afternoon at the cinema it’s a great choice, but if you only watch one film about F1, make it Senna.
In Senna’s shadow: ***