Director, actor and internationally acclaimed former Opie Ron Howard is filming a movie called "Rush." It's set in the mid- to late-1970s and focuses on the Formula 1 careers of rival drivers and close friends Niki Lauda
and James Hunt
. Each man is a legend, and each was a world champion.
Despite their immense talent, the two men are famous for different reasons. Lauda is most known for nearly losing his life
in a horrific accident
at the Nürburgring in 1976; Hunt is known for being the greatest partier and womanizer
that F1 has ever seen. Lauda's accident led to the Ring being stricken from the F1 calendar, while Hunt's career led to a lot of people loving James Hunt. Lauda inarguably saved lives by nearly getting himself killed, and Hunt forever marked the sport by proving that talent, success and insanity weren't mutually exclusive.
Howard's film, written by "Frost/Nixon" screenwriter Peter Morgan, reportedly focuses on a particular season in the two men's lives. This is interesting on its own -- despite the apparent glamour, top-level motorsport rarely makes its way into Hollywood -- but the more you consider the ingredients, the more obvious the conclusion becomes: This could be the first racing film in decades that Hollywood gets right.
A note before we go any further: Unlike a lot of Hollywood flicks, "Rush" has been blessed with delightfully unannoying buildup. Howard's Twitter feed
has essentially been the sole source of information about the movie, with Opie (I just never get tired of typing that name) posting cool production pictures on a pretty regular basis. I've included a few here, but do yourself a favor and go scroll through the tweets. (Tyrell 6-wheelers! Period helmets! Woo.)
Back to the film. What do I mean by "get right"? Simple: accuracy, emotion and a lack of artificial drama.
The subject matter isn't exactly in need of embellishment. Hunt and Lauda are icons of the sport, their exploits well-known, and they raced in an era when F1 was essentially a collection of small, family-like teams and relatively simple technology. The 1970s were the last time the sport's swashbuckling roots were on public display, and the Hunt/Lauda era stands out for its bloodshed, speed, outsized personalities and relatively media-friendly atmosphere. Drivers died, raced hung over and participated in wild sex romps mere minutes before climbing into cars. Topping it all off, the cars looked amazing and sounded like unbridled hell. If that isn't filmworthy, I don't know what is.
So the roots of the story are sound. But what of the execution? I think there's a good chance the movie will turn out well. Here's why:
Howard is known for impeccable, hyperaccurate and eminently watchable period films such as "Frost/Nixon" and "Apollo 13." He's a stickler for detail who values story above all. (If you don't think this is important, go watch Sylvester Stallone's execrable "Driven
.") And while he has little background in motorsport history, published interviews seem to indicate that he dives head-first into his subject matter. Good sign.
"Rush" comes on the tail of the amazing "Senna
," Asif Kapadia's excellent 2010 documentary about the life of 1980s Brazilian F1 champ Ayrton Senna. Unlike most motorsport documentaries, "Senna" was screened widely, and it had a remarkable effect on the American public's awareness of F1.
I loved Senna and idolized him growing up, but at the time, few in this country knew who he was. Now minivan-driving friends are dropping his name the same way that people once used "Mario Andretti" -- general shorthand for genius driving -- and I keep hearing tales of wives/grandmothers/significant others going to see the documentary and exiting in tears, overcome with emotion. "Senna" is proof that this realm contains amazing stories that simply need to be told in the proper way.
Big-budget Hollywood motorsport films have been done right before, which means they can be done again. John Frankenheimer's 1966 flick "Grand Prix
" had a campy plot and weird acting, but the technical details were accurate, and it set the template for how to film fast cars at speed. (Condensed version: Strap cameras to real cars and don't try to overdramatize what is already pretty dramatic. Also, be a genius like Frankenheimer.) Steve McQueen's 1971 vanity project "Le Mans
worked decently and still gets racing nerds -- myself included -- excited, though it completely lacked a plot and put ordinary people to sleep.
Someone has to be able to put this stuff together. With "Frost/Nixon," Howard made a riveting film about a televised interview. A few years prior, he stitched together one of the world's most complex accidents -- the Apollo 13 disaster -- and made it understandable and technically accurate. Somewhere between the two is a movie about a guy who nearly burned to death at the world's greatest racetrack and his champion friend, the perpetually drunken sex fiend.
You telling me Opie can't bring that one home?
[Source: Ron Howard/Twitter
]Sam Smith is a journalist, a Southerner and a reformed Alfa Romeo mechanic who spends most of his time mooning over ancient racing cars and small-batch bourbon. A multiple International Automotive Media award-winner, he has written for Automobile Magazine, Car and Driver and Esquire, among other publications. He once drove 4,000 miles in a weekend for a hamburger and has been threatened by the German police only twice.