Friday, September 27, 2013

THE SMACKDOWN -- Rush vs. Grand Prix

For my money there is nothing more viscerally exciting than Formula 1 auto racing. As you may know, F1 is defined by and regulated by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). The “formula” refers to the set of specific rules to which all teams must conform. The “1” stands for the undeniable fact that this is the most prestigious, most dangerous, most exciting form of motor sports in the world – period.

Unfortunately, F1 is relatively unknown in the United States due to the fact that there have been very few American drivers, with Mario Andretti, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney being the major exceptions. In addition, all of the exotic, immensely expensive cars are made overseas. This makes the USA about the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't feverishly follow the fame and fortune of such teams as Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. Then again, what would one expect from a country with the unmitigated gall to call a major sporting event “The World Series” when the only teams eligible to play are located within its borders? Thus, it is a bit surprising that American Directors and American Studios have, on occasion, risked millions in bringing F1 racing to the screen.

Our Challenger is Ron Howard's Rush, a highly publicized, ambitious production based on the true story of the 1976 F1 season and the bitter rivalry between the handsome playboy newcomer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and established driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), a past champion whose methodical approach to driving is in stark contrast to his British counterpart.

Setting the gold standard for all previous auto racing films is our Champion, Grand Prix, directed by the visionary John Frankenheimer. Set ten years earlier, Grand Prix follows a fictional set of characters during the 1967 F1 season focusing primarily on Pete Aron (James Garner) as a hard-charging American driver desperately seeking a comeback.

In a documentary about the making of Grand Prix a voice-over announcer states, “Because of the cost and complexity, it is unlikely that a film like this will ever be made again.” That statement held true for over 45 years. Can Ron Howard's brand new, true story Rush score the victory? Or does James Garner's fictional battle for the F1 Championship still possess the winning formula?

The Challenger

The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.” This is the tagline for Rush, and there's no denying that dying in an F1 racing car in the 1970s was an all-too-common occurrence, with twelve drivers being killed that decade alone. Two-time Academy Award winning Director Ron Howard teams with two-time Academy Award winning Screenwriter Peter Morgan to present a spectacular big-screen re-creation of the 1976 F1 season, focusing on the sport's two leading drivers at the time and the sizzling trifecta representing the women in their lives -- Gemma (Natalie Dormer), a nurse who knows how to dispense medicine as well as formalities, Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), Hunt's drop-dead gorgeous first wife, and Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), Lauda's refined and faithful wife of 15 years, a soul mate who's loyalty and devotion to a difficult husband may only be equaled by Sharon Osbourne.

The events of this historic season reach a flash point, literally, with Lauda's horrific crash in the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring, leaving him with a severely burned face and lungs and extremely close to death. Confined to an intensive care room, Lauda watches Hunt as he continues to win and slowly challenge his once insurmountable lead for the season championship. Against all odds, Lauda makes an inspirational and astonishing return to racing which climaxes at the final rain-swept event in Japan.

Bolstered by the use of high-quality, compact digital cameras, Howard and Cinematographer Anthony Dod deliver heart-pounding action sequences that not only puts the audience in the stands, but in the race cars themselves. It's a hell of a ride, and the logistics of capturing all of this on the big screen was clearly a massive undertaking apparently requiring the combined skills of 6 Producers and 5 Co-Producers. Then again, Rush may have simply raised the bar for the further dilution of what once were meaningful screen credits. Credit issues aside, Rush is a powerful, engaging and highly entertaining movie.

 The Defending Champion

Oscar-winning Screenwriter (All That Jazz) Robert Alan Aurthur's fictional script focuses on the top four drivers during the 1967 F1 Season – both on and off the track. Behind the wheel we find Pete Aron (James Garner), an American who loses his ride, only to be hired for the final few races by a wealthy Japanese industrialist (Toshiro Mifune) who desperately wants his car to win its first F1 race. The reigning world champion is Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), a Frenchman who is the leader of the legendary Scuderia Ferrari team. Providing additional competition is the Englishman Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) and young Nino Barlini, Sarti's teammate. Behind the bedroom door we find three beautiful, but dispassionate women – Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a semi-frigid American journalist who gets involved with the married Sarti, Pat Stoddard (Jessica Walter), Scott's high maintenance, self-centered wife, and Lise (Francoise Hardy), Nino's latest nubile squeeze.

The tagline for Grand Prix was “Sweeps YOU into a drama of speed and spectacle!” Shot in 70 mm 6-track Super Panavision and released in Cinerama, Grand Prix is one film that truly utilized all of the state-of-the-art production techniques of the day. Sitting in front of a theater screen over 100 feet wide, the audience literally felt the exhilarating speed and the ear-shattering sounds of high revving, 400+ horse power engines. Next to being at an actual F1 race, Grand Prix comes as close as anything for the average person to “experience” the inherent danger present on every lap, every turn. (Of the 32 drivers who participated or were seen in the film, five died in racing accidents within the next two years and another five in the following ten years.)

The Scorecard

There are a number of ways to assess the merit of a motion picture project. In the case of these films two criteria are paramount for a winning formula: 1) Is the off-track storyline fully developed, engaging, well-acted and powerful enough to stand alone, sans any racing footage whatsoever? And 2) Do the racing scenes capture the inherent danger, the incredible speed, the earth-shattering sound, the complexity and the beauty of F1?

Rush has the advantage of being based on a true story. Niki Lauda, whose nickname was “The Rat” because of his ungainly appearance and bucked teeth, was, by all accounts, a cold, arrogant, calculating Austrian obsessed to be the best. He was clearly the exact opposite of the flamboyant Hunt, a highly charismatic, reckless playboy whose lifestyle included lots of booze, drugs and women (he is said to have had sexual relations with an NBA-worthy 5,000 young maidens before dying of a heart attack at the age of 45). These two bigger-than-life, divergent personalities, each desperately seeking to become the premier global name in F1 racing, are captured perfectly by the complex, insightful screenplay by Peter Morgan who has a history of pitting head-to-head real-life, powerful personalities, including the Howard-directed Frost/Nixon, as well as Blair/Brown in The Deal and Idi Amin/his doctor in The Last King Of Scotland.

Lauda and Hunt are compellingly portrayed by the remarkable Daniel Bruhl (in what some are already declaring to be an Oscar-worthy performance) and his counterpart Chris Hemsworth. Lauda's story is one of unparalleled dedication, perseverance and outright will power. In a strange twist of fate, it may have been his bitter rivalry with Hunt that actually drives him, both spiritually and physically, to drive again. Audiences come to love Hunt as the dazzling, dashing dandy he is, but it is Lauda's vulnerability and bravery that will resonate deeper and longer. In fact, there are many who believe what Lauda does in the last race of the season is “among the bravest decisions in motor racing history.” Clearly there are no villains here, only two remarkable, highly talented, highly motivated adversaries who are not as black-and-white as the checkered flag found at the finish line.

While the off-track scenes provide an insightful, captivating look at the behind-the-scenes lives of two historic racers, Rush will also be remembered for its exhilarating on-track footage. One must assume that Howard screened Grand Prix prior to undertaking this project; his challenge is to at least equal, if not exceed, the cinematic spectacle brilliantly brought to the screen by our Champion. He comes close.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, supplied with three dozen Arri Alera Plus digital cameras, deserves much of the credit, especially for having so many actually mounted inside the race cars which provide a staggering visual immediacy. The extreme close-up of Hunt's eyes behind the wheel captures the incredible focus needed to pilot a 180 mph F1 car as well as any camera technique previously employed. And the overhead shots of the blazing inferno engulfing Lauda's blood-red Ferrari will not easily be forgotten.

All of these amazing images are enhanced by the cello-driven score by Hans Zimmer providing a surprising and unique counterpart to the speed of the cars and the sound of their screaming F1 engines. Additional kudos must go to Editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill who manage to condense a complex, multi-faceted story into a mere 123-minute running time. Opie and friends have done well.

Howard's counterpart, John Frankenheimer, is probably best known for directing, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate, but his ability to overcome the immense challenges of shooting Grand Prix may be his most significant cinematic accomplishment. Without doubt, Frankenheimer's biggest challenge was the screenplay penned by Robert Alan Arthur, which at times is little more than a soap opera. Nonetheless, the entire cast does an admirable job with the material, with the lone exception being “newcomer” Francoise Hardy who, at the time, was a popular singer in France. While she definitely provides pleasing eye candy, her lack of acting ability can best be summed up by simply pointing out that she never again appeared in a major film anywhere.

Clearly the best parts in Grand Prix didn't go to the actors, they went to the cars, and when the action moves from off-track melodrama to on-the-track mega-drama, our Champion's fortunes take a bigger turn than the famous Grand Hotel Hairpin Curve at Monaco thanks to Director Frankenheimer's outstanding directorial, editorial and technical achievements when the pedal hits the metal. As the tagline declares, Grand Prix “Sweeps YOU into a drama of speed and spectacle!” If there ever was truth in advertising, consider the fact that many young film goers would become mesmerized by sitting in the very first row through repeated screenings while stoned. Now that, my friend, was a hell of a rush in 1967.

Using every Super Panavision camera in existence, the ultra-wide screen images benefitted from Frankenheimer's occasional use of split screen (in part to overcome the inherent distortion problems presented by Cinerama in close-ups) as well as employing the additional use of multi-image sequences.
And keep in mind there's no CGI – (thank you very much) – everything you see is real. Just as impressive was the meticulous attention paid to capturing the ear-splitting sounds of the various race cars, garnering Grand Prix two well-deserved Academy Awards. (Each car was carefully miked and recorded so the screaming sounds made by the Ferrari engine would be 100% accurate and discernible from those made by the engine powering the McLaren – it is this attention to detail that racing aficionados cherish the most.) All other technical aspects of the film were top notch as well, with everything skillfully blended by Oscar-nominated film editors Henry Berman, Stu Linder and Frank Santillo and further enhanced by the moving score by Maurice Jarre, who had recently completed Laurence of Arabia. All things considered, the 176 minute running time maintains its pace remarkably well.

The Decision

Both John Frankenheimer and Ron Howard began their careers in television. Frankenheimer started out behind the camera; his experience with employing multi-camera production techniques, meeting rigid deadlines and needing to get things right on the first take amid the chaos of live TV made him an ideal choice for Grand Prix. Howard on the other hand, began his career in front of the camera. His transition to directing single-camera feature-length motion pictures is both remarkable and undeniable. Given these backgrounds, one might give Frankenheimer the edge when it comes to the challenges of capturing the turbulent and tempestuous world of F1 racing. Then again...

Decision time – which of these two highly talented filmmakers brings home the Smackdown trophy? Let's do a quick recap: Cinemascope vs. Conventional Projection. Academy Award Winning Sound Effects vs. Potential Academy Award Winning Sound Effects. 176 minutes vs. 123. Eva Marie Saint/Jessica Walter vs. Natalie Dormer/Olivia Wilde. Robert Alan Aurthur's Screenplay vs. Peter Morgan's Screenplay.

One film is Bigger, and even though it has nothing to do with Niki, it is Lauda! The other is Faster. Hotter. And Better!

Pop open the champagne Mr. Howard, taking the checkered flag is our Smackdown Winner – Rush.