As Above, So Below
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It's 1976, and reigning Formula One champion Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) has a fierce on- and off-track rivalry with hard-drinking, louche English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The season is turned on its head, however, when Lauda suffers horrific injuries in a fiery crash – but when he returns to the car mere weeks later, the championship goes down to the wire...
It's fair to say that the motor racing film hasn't generally been the most distinguished of movie genres. It was arguably only with Asif Kapadia's 2010 documentary masterpiece Senna that moviegoers' eyes were really opened to the intense human drama so often on display throughout the history of Formula One – and to the fact that there might actually be something significant and universal lurking underneath the fast-paced, glamorous surface.
As good as Senna was, however, there still remained the question of whether a scripted drama could actually bring these elements out as well. Who better to have a go, then, than scriptwriter Peter Morgan - a widely acknowledged master of getting to the nub of conflicts between hard-edged, real life personalities - and his Frost/Nixon collaborator Ron Howard?
The Hunt and Lauda feud that ran throughout the 1976 season is a goldmine for Morgan, presenting him as it does with two almost diametrically opposed personalities – and yet, with each as fascinating as the other, and both equally able to inspire empathy alongside disapproval, the script never resorts to painting one as the hero or villain. Instead, the narrative shifts between them as they make their respective ways to F1 before doing battle on track in that fateful year.
There's possibly a slight bias shown towards Lauda, mind, whose cold and undiplomatic exterior is gradually peeled back thanks in part to his remarkable recovery from his accident, and to a romantic subplot that feels warmer than Hunt's ill-fated marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde). It also helps the Austrian's case that Daniel Brühl's performance is as remarkable it is – he inhabits Lauda, who remains a high-profile presence on the F1 circuit, in an uncanny fashion, making him a more compelling figure than may seem at first glance.
The racing sequences are, for the most part, astonishing. Howard makes the cars a true extension of the drivers, sending the camera in and around their clattering metal frames and the limbs of their pilots alike and conveying a true sense of both tangible weight and speed. Phenomenal sound design helps with this – it's an unrelenting assault on the ears that simply demands to be experienced on the largest screen possible.
By its very nature, F1 is a slightly unreal world, so it's to Howard's immense credit that he gets such a visceral sensation across, giving the film's closing scenes a tension that knots the stomach, whether or not you happen to know the eventual outcome. The only question, by that stage, is which of Rush’s two equally fascinating heroes – or, perhaps, anti-heroes – you’ve decided to root for.
The off-track melodrama is occasionally formulaic, but this is nevertheless a compelling portrait of two rivals at the height of intense competition – and easily the best big-screen, fictional representation of motor sport to date.
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