“Rush” is a good movie, not a documentary

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Hunt Lauda podium

James Hunt and Niki Lauda on the podium, 1976 (LAT Photo)


Well, now that the Hunt-Lauda movie “Rush” is finally in general release, I was able to see it over the weekend. Earlier this summer I wrote a story for PRN Ignition about the 1976 Hunt-Lauda fight for that year’s Formula One championship. By the time I had done the research for that story combined with my personal recollections from the day, I had made myself pretty knowledgeable about the real on-the-record story of the two drivers and their dramatic 1976 championship battle.

Now I’ve seen the movie Ron Howard has produced based on that real-life story. Before I say anything else, I must be at pains to emphasize that it is a well-made movie with a racing theme and I would encourage anyone with an interest in racing to see it.

To me, it is a good movie, though not a great one. But if you are expecting a realistic picture of the lives of the two drivers or how the championship battle played out on the track, you may be disappointed. Like all movies which are based on a real-life stories, the story line has been vastly simplified in its details which inevitably leads to the story on the screen being, at best, a rough approximation of the actual real-life story.

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As for the racing scenes, they look pretty realistic, nothing like the dummied-up cars they used in the fondly remembered “Grand Prix,” but there are actually few sustained scenes of racing action in identifiable locations. This is nothing like Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans,” which has a wealth of racing action filmed on the Le Mans circuit using the real cars – that movie still holds the title for best on-track racing action.

20130919 195037For someone like me, who makes a game of trying to identify the location where every still photo of a racing car in action was taken, and who was seriously following F1 in that era, every little discrepancy in the race story line or in the way that the racing is represented jumps out at me. In addition, having read every biography of Hunt and of Lauda I could find as part of my research, I now know a lot of specific details I never knew before. That only adds to the conflict between the reality as I think I know it and the movie story portrayed on screen.

I suspect that, for race fans who don’t remember that era in detail, these discrepancies are not so obvious or jarring. If you haven’t read any of the bios or my story in PRN Ignition yet, wait until after you have seen the movie.

Once you have seen the movie, I recommend that you check out the “History vs. Hollywood” analysis of the movie at http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/rush.php. While it does cover the important questions pretty well, confirming and correcting them, the author of this piece is not so hung up about the smaller details as I am.

As I said already, I couldn’t stop myself from looking at the movie and saying to myself, ‘That isn’t right,’ over and over again. Of course, it would have been impossible for Howard to include in a two-hour movie the amount of detail needed to avoid a tremendous amount of over-simplification. That’s the way movies are.

Having said that, I can’t resist mentioning at least a couple of points I found jarring – and which prevented me from fully buying into the on-screen story.

First, they show Lauda fighting off a strong challenge from Hunt on his way to winning the 1975 Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Lauda did win that race but Hunt was never close, finishing in fourth place.

Lauda leads Hunt Brands Hatch

Lauda leads Hunt at Brands Hatch (LAT Photo)

The movie tells us that Hunt won the 1976 British Grand Prix, when, in fact, the history books tell us Lauda was the official race winner. In fact, the movie chose to completely ignore the dramatics at the start of the race – the red-flag and the near riot that resulted in Hunt being allowed on the grid for the restart – and his subsequent disqualification.

At Japan, the race is finally started despite the rain continuing. However, in the movie there are clearly big pools of standing water covering the grid. Even in those days of a more cavalier attitude toward racing in the wet, we knew about the hazards of standing water and they would never have started the race under these conditions. Then, once the race began, in real life the rain soon stopped and Hunt’s rain tires wore out despite his best efforts to preserve them. In the movie, the torrential rain never lets up but his tires fail anyway.

Points like this throughout the racing action parts of the movie did make it hard for me to get into the story. Most people do not have the detailed memories I have and, no doubt, will be able to go with the flow and enjoy the broad strokes of the dramatic story of two drivers who fought it out for the world championship in 1976.

Ron Howard never claimed he was making a documentary.

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