Like many of you, I was despondent to learn that Ron Howard's superb RUSH isn't exactly lighting up the box office like its roaring Formula One cars light up their tires. That's surprising considering the film's critical acclaim. Then I started to wonder: did the ad blitz for RUSH sidestep its most compelling story?
(Warning: This contains some spoilers for the 1976 Grand Prix season and the movie it's based on.)
I had the pleasure of seeing RUSH at its Jalopnik Film Festival premiere in New York a few weeks ago and I loved it. I thought it had the perfect mix of compelling human drama with thrilling racing sequences. It was a great movie, not just a great motorsports movie. And more than anything, it was just plain fun to watch.
Since then, I've been an evangelist for the film, trying to convince my racing fan and non-racing fan friends to go see it themselves.
The other day, I was having a conversation with one of the latter, and he didn't seem too enthusiastic about it. "I don't know, man. That Australian guy doesn't do anything for me," he said.
That Australian guy, of course, would be actor Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame, who plays blonde racer-playboy James Hunt of McLaren — and plays him to a T. Hemsworth does a stellar job as Hunt, the immensely talented driver who hides his acute awareness of the dangers of his profession under a veneer of endless partying and womanizing.
I can't really blame my friend for being a little sick of seeing Hemsworth everywhere. (This friend did enjoy the movie after I took him to see it.) At least in America, Hemsworth is the centerpiece of RUSH's months-long ad campaign. He's the focus of the trailers, he's the face on the posters, and he's the guy in the TV commercials you see on ESPN. My guess is the movie's marketers thought the handsome, well-built Hemsworth would put a lot of butts in movie theater seats, particularly female ones.
And rightfully so, in some ways. Hunt won the 1976 Grand Prix driver's championship. He's also one of the most exciting F1 drivers ever, on and off the track. He was famous for his antics, but there was much more to him in real life, like his personal crusade against Apartheid in South Africa. Hunt was an amazing individual and an important part of the sport's history.
But as much as I like James Hunt, a funny thing happened to me when I watched RUSH: by the end of it, I was rooting for Niki Lauda more.
RUSH is a study in contrasts between two men with radically different personalities and philosophies. Both Hunt and Lauda are portrayed as extremely gifted drivers, but they are also shown to be supremely arrogant in their own ways. While Hunt was the fun-loving loose cannon, Lauda was the cold, ruthlessly analytical pedant blessed with great technical precision but little to no people skills. The Austrian Ferrari driver always acted like he was smarter than everyone else in the room, often because he probably was.
Lauda doesn't come off as all that likable through much of the movie. His relationship with his wife Marlene brings out some of his humanity, but he's mostly cold and never really seems like someone you'd want to be friends with.
But then Lauda has his fiery crash at the German Grand Prix in which he is nearly cooked alive inside his race car. Let me be clear: RUSH does not pull its punches when it depicts what happened to Lauda in that crash and what he went through after.
During Lauda's scenes in the hospital, there wasn't a man or woman in our audience who didn't have their teeth clenched tight and their fingernails digging into their armrests as a doctor shoves a metal pipe down Lauda's burned throat to vacuum toxic gunk out of his lungs.
Lauda suffers a fate you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. His body is in shambles after the crash, his face is turned into a horrifying mask, and he is forced to watch Hunt race to victory after victory on TV as he lies in bed. So against the advice of his doctors and with his head still wrapped in bloody bandages, Lauda manages to climb back in his car so he can finish out the season and hopefully keep his champion title.
At that point, I found it impossible not to cheer for Lauda. His recovery and return to racing is nothing short of miraculous, all of it driven by his incredible iron willpower. In spite of whatever personal shortcomings he had, you had to be moved by his determination, his ability to set pain aside so he could get back to doing the very thing that put him in the hospital in the first place. If you ask me, it's one of the best comeback stories in all of sports.
But if you watch the trailers for RUSH, that aspect of the film isn't all that noticeable. If you didn't know about Lauda before you went in, his crash and recovery will catch you completely off guard. That story seems somewhat glossed over in everything that promotes the film.
In a lot of ways, it makes sense that Hemsworth/Hunt takes precedence over Lauda, portrayed by German actor Daniel Brühl. Brühl isn't exactly well known to American audiences. Most of us recognize him as the Nazi sharpshooter-turned-hero-turned-asshole from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. He's hardly the household name that Hemsworth is. But to me, Lauda's crash and return to the track was the film's centerpiece, even if it was Hunt who took home the championship.
So here is what I am wondering: Had RUSH been marketed as a comeback story, would it be doing better at the box office right now? Americans love comeback stories, especially in sports. They love underdog stories. I'm not saying the angle of the film should have been different — I thought it portrayed both men perfectly well. I also loved how their rivalries played off one another. Lauda was driven to get back in the seat by Hunt's victories, and Hunt's desire to be better than Lauda pushed him to go for it in the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix where he secured his championship.
But maybe if Lauda's story had been publicized more during the film's marketing — especially with American moviegoers who aren't as F1-savvy — it would have more appeal beyond being simply a "racing movie" and possibly be performing better.
All I know is that people need to go see it. Drag your friends to the theaters if you have to. Tell them they won't be disappointed.