(This in no way constitutes a return to normal service – I saw this nearly a month ago now and have only just gotten around to writing about it…).
Somewhere along the line, Ron Howard seems to have developed a career in telling stories where we already know the ending (but making us not care that we do). Here he adds a further complication to the equation by choosing a subject that a good chunk of the population finds as dull a dishwater – Formula One – and two protagonists that do nothing to elicit audience sympathy. Despite all of this film is a minor triumph, unlikely to worry anything outside of the technical categories (more of which later) but decent enough to be respected.
At the core this is down to Howard’s faith in his actors. As Hunt / Lauda respectively, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl each bring different styles of acting to the film. Hemsworth has the marginally easier role, reliant on natural charisma to push things along (but remaining enough of an arsehole that you never fully sympathise with him). Brühl is fantastic, a much more difficult role as a character that has very few redeeming features but knows that he is the better of the two drivers. Whilst the antagonism between the two is somewhat exaggerated (a point alluded to at the end), it’s this difference in personality that drives the film. Brühl has been good before, but Hemsworth shows a hitherto unseen flair but straight drama, albeit not too far from his comfort zone. Around these Howard has built a fine supporting cast (including an unrecognisable Olivia Wilde) who ensure that they never take the focus away from the central dynamic.
Howard’s direction has never been flashy, but the ease with which he’s capable of telling a story, delivering all the pertinent information to the audience without providing information overload is a skill that too few directors seem to have these days. The investment in his actors ensures that the scenes away from the racing are as thrilling as those on the track. On the track things change considerably, as the film takes the unusual approach of using no archive footage (other than what’s briefly witnessed on TV’s in the background) instead using digital recreations to replicate the look and feel of the race. It’s a superb conceit, the film feels physical and yet the audience must realise that the shots are impossible to create outside of a computer, an almost documentary approach to the subject (and this is a film that is aware of the shadow that Senna has over it) without being fawning to the subject. The non-intrusive score feels appropriate, but most of the time the soundtrack is dominated by the sounds of engines – at times a full score would feel inappropriate given the approach of the film.
Most encouraging of all, the film shows that there is still a market for mid budget adult orientated films in a market increasingly dominated by large scale studio output. Sure, you could fund Ken Loach for the next decade with the budget, but in Hollywood terms this is reasonable. Even better it never simplifies the subject, trusting that the audience has enough intelligence to follow what is happening. It even makes the subject thrilling for those who have no interest in the subject (it’s fair to say that the group I saw it with have little interest in Formula One) because it takes the principles of good storytelling as its maxim, and often that’s all a film needs to get a recommendation. That it (for me) contains some of the best examples of what digital filmmaking is capable of doing is a just a bonus.