Rating: If you think the competition between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was memorable, at least they didn’t risk death with each game. This is a championship movie about championship sports figures.
Director Ron Howard has brought us a wildly engaging film centering on two characters largely lost to sports’ history. Focusing on the intense battle between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda for the Formula One Championship in 1976, Mr. Howard has recreated one of the great spirited duels that has taken place in any sport.
On top of that, we are graced by superlative performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruel, who play Hunt and Lauda. Dying some years later at the age of 46, Hemsworth’s Hunt wants to be a champion both on the track and in bed. Having literally no fear of death on the racetrack, he lived a private life filled with drugs, booze and beautiful women.
Lauda was the direct opposite, which fueled their personal rivalry. He was a dedicated driver from Central Europe who could have cared less about popularity. Lacking any of the dashing charm or charisma of Hunt, he lived and breathed racing on and off the track.
Competitors at the top of their game, these two individuals profoundly disliked each other. Hemsworth’s Hunt was an earthly version of his role as Thor in various films, here substituting a McLaren for Thor’s mighty hammer. He constantly taunted Lauda, relishing his pretty boy image.
But Hunt’s weakness was his lack of discipline off the racetrack, something that further separated the two men. His quick marriage to the beautiful model Suzy Miller, played with an edgy sparkle by Olivia Wilde, disintegrated given his infidelities.
On the other hand, Lauda was dedicated to his wife Marlene, played by the elegant Alexandra Maria Lara. He feared death on the track only as it related to her agony, and he became far more admirable in the process than Hunt.
What lies at the center of this compelling film was the tragic accident suffered by Lauda in a rain-soaked race in Japan. Sitting in his wrecked vehicle for over 60 seconds while everything was consumed in flame, he was hospitalized in intensive care for 30 days. Fighting back from near death, Lauda suffered incredible facial burns and the loss of his right ear.
Incredibly, given the fact that Hunt was closing on the championship, he came back to racing 45 days after the accident, suffering partial vision problems that added to his scars. The championship came down to the last race of the year, one that was also engulfed by a massive storm. Though history long ago vividly explained what happened, you get caught up in the intrigue as Lauda had to decide whether to seek the championship, in the process risking saying goodbye to his wife.
I should also note that the soundtrack fits perfectly with the entire film, particularly the breathtaking races. And while the cinematography occasionally shows repetitive moments in successive races, you nonetheless get caught up in the thrill of the moment.
Put another way, you could have absolutely no interest in Formula One racing and still love this film. Hunt and Lauda inspired each other, and you are likely to catch some of that feeling. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this good about a Ron Howard film.