Formula 1 isn't a sport that goes well with cinema. Honestly, For those who want to see the racing action, they'd be far better off just seeing the real thing, while those interested in the behind the scenes human drama would be better off just watching a different movie. That's essentially the problem with Grand Prix, which, prior to the release Ron Howard's Rush (2013) was the go-to formula 1 movie (not that it ever had much competition-does anyone care about Le Mans? Driven?).
Directed by John Frankenheimer and released the same year as his terrifying Seconds, the movie follows a predictable template: start with a race, develop a conflict among the drivers (in this case, Peter Aron (James Garner) blocking Scott Stoddard's car and causing a serious crash, and then to take the viewer beyond the track and into the personal lives of the drivers. The only interesting conflict is a love triangle (don't cringe, this is actually a good one!) between Peter, Scott, and Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter-in Arrested Development she looks like she's trying to hold onto former beauty-see her in this and it's not hard to see why). Pat's dilemma is that Scott, even now that he's cut up and on crutches, won't quit racing. She wants stability and fun, neither of which she can get with Scott (though her complaint that he just lies in bed the night before each race sweating, which she makes at least twice in the movie on my count, seems pretty weak. What's wrong with that? What else should he be doing?), and thus starts going for Peter instead. It's almost hilarious watching her hitting on him, dropping the least subtle hints possible at every turn that she's looking for someone besides Scott. Practically speaking it makes no sense at all since since Peter is also a driver and thus won't allow her life to slow down, but emotionally it's clear as day: by falling for Peter she's rebelling against her husband's refusal to comply to her wishes. What results in this love formation is one of the movie's most honest and mature statements about commitment and people in general. It deserves major props then for taking what could have been time filler and developing a side story worth the viewer's time.
Unhappily, the same cannot be said for the other major characters in the film. On top of the personal lives of Peter and Scott are the dramas encountered by Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), a hot-shot young Italian driver, and Jean Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), an older, more reserved racer who nevertheless might be the most talented of the lot. Both of these men encounter uninteresting woman who they fall in love with. Their stories give the movie no weight or substance, and ultimately are the reason this thing runs on for three hours. It could have been a lean two hour spectacle with just the back stories of Peter and Scott, and yet this is a movie that yearns to be an epic, thus it has to give the viewer a peek inside the lives of all four drivers. If they'd all been interesting then it might have worked, but instead we get a film that's simply weighed down by its own empty ambition.
The racing sequences are stellar, though compared to Rush, which I'll get to in a moment, they're a little too similar to simply watching Formula 1 on TV. Frankenheimer's camera mainly sticks to long shots and helicopter shots of the cars, and while the action is clearly presented, it's visceral impact is slight. That said, it looks fantastic. Originally shot on 65 mm Super Panavision, pick up a blu ray of this and put it on your HDTV and you'll be rewarded with a textured, visually rich experience.
Ron Howard takes the opposite approach to the race scenes in Rush (from a script by Peter Morgan), which is basically a leaner, more interesting version of Grand Prix (and also one that's based on a little-known, but intriguing true story). Known for his sleek studio movies, one would expect Howard to take the Frankenheimer approach to the race sequences, but instead we get something much grittier and more visually diverse. Rather than keeping the camera at a distance and giving us a clear look at the race, Howard keeps it as close to the cars as possible, thus making us feel the action. The camera goes just about everywhere it possibly can, from low shots on the side of the track, to inside the cars, to-best of all-a repeated move in which it's put on the side of the car by the wheel. The visceral impact of this is helped by an occasionally jittering camera, slightly muddy images, plus the fact that two of the key races in the movie are set during the rain. It looks nothing like a Ron Howard movie. Not surprisingly, it's my favorite Howard film to date.
What really makes Rush the better movie though is that its two central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) are both asses, consider each other to be asses, and yet still have enough values that they respect each other. It's a refreshingly uncompromising approach for a fact-based sports movie, one that doesn't sugar coat the facts in order to gain the viewers' sympathies. Morgan did this wonderfully in The Damned United, in which soccer coach Brian Clough was shown to be a man so intense and obsessed with his own personal vision that he lost not just games, but friends and his own peace of mind.
Here, Hunt is shown as a playboy racer, who in his off time devotes more time to woman and parties than training. Lauda is his antithesis, refusing to allow himself to give in to friendship or even a night out drinking. He's narrowed his life down to two things: racing, and being the best at it. When he does concede to the love of a woman, he tells her on the wedding night that he fears happiness because "suddenly you have something to lose." Lauda stays away from human connection not because he doesn't understand it, but because he knows it's far more nimble and delicate than racing is. If he loses a race he can just do it again. He knows that the world outside of the track is different than that, and he's afraid of it (in short, he's basically the opposite of most people, who see racing as the nimble and delicate thing-you could die any second!)
What unites the fundamentally different Hunt and Lauda though is their massive egos. If this were a typical sports film, one would see Hunt and Lauda and immediately be able to label them as types. That they end up being as unpredictable as they are is Rush's greatest asset. Howard and Morgan aren't afraid of making these men unlikable, perhaps because they know that in showing things as they are, the viewer will ultimately care for them more.
The one thing that both Grand Prix and Rush address equally well is the psychological mindset of the racers. Why do they do this when every time they race they're putting their life on the line? While this is slightly reductive, both films seem to suggest they same thing. At one point in Grand Prix, Mason says "Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive is to feel life and living so much more intensely." In Rush, Hemsworth essentially says the same thing: "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. It's a wonderful way to live. It's the only way to live." I'm reminded of a scene in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, when Binx Bolling describes how a car accident was a blessing because it kept him out of the malaise. To have something happen that keeps the banality of life from becoming too oppressive can be a blessing. For a Formula 1 driver, this is a constant necessity.