The ArcLight theater in Hollywood, CA held a special media screening of the new Ron Howard film based on the true story of two well-known Formula 1 drivers: James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Just like an avid book reader, I went into this screening hoping that Howard wouldn't turn off serious Formula 1 fans (such as your author) from an attempt at recreating history. He most definitely proved me wrong.
The film follows the rivalry between James Hunt, McLaren driver (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda, Ferrari driver (played by Daniel Bruhl) during the 1976 Formula 1 season. If you know anything about these two drivers, the film depicts them quite accurately, portraying Hunt as the good-looking play-boy and Lauda as brilliant and serious. The two could not be more opposite in personality, but came from hauntingly similar backgrounds. Six years prior to the explosive season depicted, the two were just starting in a lower Formula division. That's where the rivalry began.
While I could go into each and every detail of the film and each race depicted, I will tell you some highlights. The women in the audiences jaws dropped at the sight of Chris Hemsworth without a shirt and I was glued to the screen for each and every racing scene. But one in particular was truly gripping.
The race at Nurburgring in Germany took place in less than ideal weather conditions. Lauda called a driver's meeting to take a vote with the hope of canceling the race. Modesty aside, Lauda told the room that he was the fastest driver on that track and was sure to beat them all. But if he ever felt there was more than a 20% chance of death during a race, he would not participate. Hunt led the campaign against Lauda and convinced the other drivers to race. That would be Hunt and Lauda's biggest regret. If you know what happened to the then current F1 world champion you can guess what happened next. The accident was horrific, watching Lauda wave his arms helplessly as the inferno engulfed him.
But if you haven't followed these two drivers you would probably assume that Lauda died in that car and that was the end of the rivalry. Wrong. Help eventually arrived and Lauda began his weeks of recovery.
At this point I was really on the edge of my seat. I had taken sides and wanted Lauda to again be world champion, not that good-looking play-boy portrayed so well. I was rooting for Lauda's quick recovery and hoping he would kick some serious butt on track even with painful burns to his face. Remember, Lauda was a huge reason for Ferrari's success that year and he worked tirelessly on improving the car, his abilities and staying focused. He never partied and prepared weeks in advance for a race. It was probably director Howard's goal to make you just as uncomfortable with his recovery as he probably was. You felt his pain and you wanted to see him to race just as badly as he did.
To avoid spoiler backlash I won't tell you how the film ended and what happened to the drivers. But let's put it in race fan terms: the film rocked my world and I am totally and utterly impressed with Ron Howard's accuracy and attempt at making you feel as if you were racing with the drivers. Unlike most films where the camera is uncomfortably steady while following the cars, the camera work was top notch and always active during the track scenes, giving you a real sense of racing.
You might be wondering what I didn't like. There wasn't much, but I could have done without the unnecessary amount of scenes showing Hunt doing what he did best (which isn't racing, if you catch my drift). I kept reminding myself it was what he was like, but I would have preferred those minutes being instead dedicated to even more on-track footage. Besides that I really can't complain. The supporting actors were believable, costumes were period correct and the soundtrack really added to each scenes' mood. What I feel Howard did best were the detailed race scenes. The audience was even taken inside the engine through CGI, showing us how various parts worked. The noise that emanated from the exhaust from start to finish was incredible. I felt like the biggest nerd in the room getting goose bumps each time one of those gorgeous Formula 1 cars ignited to life or accelerated hard through a corner. Compared to other race films? I might be biased, but this may just be one of the best films I have ever seen.
If you are remotely interested in racing, a serious fan or just want something to do this September go see this film! If not for the love of Formula 1 and racing, then for the appreciation of a great film.