James Hunt and Niki Lauda are a filmmaker’s dream.
In the mid-1970s they shared an epic rivalry in a sport – Formula One – with plenty of action and death-defying drama. Off the track, the two men couldn’t have been more different, offering director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) the chance to explore something much more interesting than the typical sports movie where a single hero is on a path to inevitable glory.
The problem with car-racing movies, though, is that they are car-racing movies. Has any director found a way to spare audiences the eventual tedium of watching automobiles go around and around a track and instead capture the thrill of the sport?
Howard, a dependable craftsman not known for action sequences, does his best by putting cameras just about everywhere you could imagine: down at a driver’s feet inside the cockpit, behind spinning wheels, up above trees that hide speeding cars and by the side of the track as cars whip by.
While Howard is busy with these multiple perspectives, Morgan’s screenplay is singularly focused on the two men’s contrasting personalities, which become not just differences of character or temperament, but opposing life philosophies. Hunt is the brash, reckless Englishman who beds any woman he wants and swigs champagne before a race, whereas Austrian Lauda is the calculating, impersonal technician.
To its credit, the film portrays both men as equally unlikeable. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Hunt with such cocksureness that he nearly swaggers over the line into parody. Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds) seems to revel in playing up Lauda’s more oft-putting character traits. Why his wife loves him is anyone’s guess, although none of the secondary characters, including Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife, are much more than thinly drawn sideshows to the main event of Hunt and Lauda’s battles.
Howard has to compress six years of those battles into a mere 123 minutes, which means he is briefly forced to recount race results at whiplash speed: Lauda wins this one, Hunt wins that one. Points totals are flashed on screen. It also means the film opens and closes with bits of completely superfluous voice-over dialogue explaining the rivalry and the two men’s hard-won respect for each other.
The movie finds its emotional centre when Lauda has a crash during a race in 1976 that leaves him badly burned. The scenes of his recovery, including him getting his lungs vacuumed, are painful to watch. When he gets back in the car, it’s emotional, though hardly as rousing as Howard and Morgan want it to be.
The final showdown to decide who will emerge as champion of the world, shot in a gritty palette by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, manages a surprise twist – even if who winds up on the podium is predictable.
The movie could have ended there, but Howard and Morgan can’t resist a denouement where the rivals have a chance encounter in an airplane hangar and bludgeon the audience with a discussion of their different philosophies of life, just in case you haven’t been watching. Lauda tells Hunt that hard work and dedication make a champion, while Hunt says that if you don’t enjoy life, what’s the point of winning races.
Unlike so many other conventional sports movies, Howard chooses not to take sides. It’s a wise decision in an entertaining movie with two solid performances that only occasionally stalls because of its sometimes heavy-handed treatment of Hunt and Lauda’s differences.