There are few movie scenes that are as exciting as cars going really fast. Take your pick from swerving through traffic, making hairpin turns on mountain roads or bearing down onto the finish line. They’ve been a staple in action movies for decades, and they’ve grown their own subgenre of car movies. The formula is straightforward: Include an exciting high-speed car scene and tons of people will love it.
It’s because the car chase is so straightforward and easy a crowd-pleaser. The Fast and The Furious franchise of movies, now filming its seventh installment, is often chided for being such an obvious exploitation of that formula. The plots of the movies are really not much beyond papier-mâché vehicles — pardon the pun — to bring us larger and more complex racing and chasing scenes. Which is not to criticize the movies themselves — Fast Five was one of my favorite flicks of 2011 — but the potential for drama that wild driving can bring has rarely been examined.
One film which will seek to build on the potential for drama in car films is Rush, which will be out in limited release this weekend. The sports drama focuses on the 1976 Formula 1 racing season, but it will also seek to delve into the twisted adrenaline-fueled psychology that’s required for anyone who willfully drives a car going 200 mph. Addressing such complex themes in a sport that’s struggled to gain a foothold in America is a bold move by Exclusive Media studios and super-director Ron Howard, if only because such a film hasn’t been made. That said, a film like Rush really seems overdue.
There have certainly been great car scenes in dramatic movies. The winner of the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture, The French Connection has one of the most iconic chases of all time, and the game of chicken from Rebel Without a Cause is a major plot point. But these scenes have generally been relegated to action movies (with obvious exceptions including Talladega Nights or Cars). This is in no way a bad thing. The most iconic chase scene of all time is probably the one from Bullitt. That scene, with Steve McQueen oozing cool in an iconic-in-its-own-right green blur of a Mustang on the streets and hills of San Francisco, is the scene against which all chase scenes made after its 1968 release are measured against. That scene is pure cinema, visual storytelling at its finest. To cinema purists who value telling as much as possible visually and just as little verbally, this should be a boon, and it certainly was at the time. The highly innovative camera placements and, more than anything else, editing, was lauded at the time. Frank P. Keller, the editor, won the Oscar for Best Editing that year and the general consensus was that Keller would have won the Oscar even if the film was cut down to only the 10-minute car scene.
It makes sense that the trick is in the editing and cinematography, which allows these films to succeed where anything similar in real life cannot. Sure, racing like that must be absolutely exhilarating, but watching a car race in real life is much more boring. Chases are usually worse; the ones that we usually see on television are slow and careful, usually ending very quickly. O.J. Simpson’s famous chase in that white Bronco was suspenseful, but no one could say it was exciting.
With editing and camera angles, a movie can put you in that car, right in the pulse of the conflict. Of course, one thing that allows for that editing that is not available in real life is the ability to film multiple takes. That ability is accentuated by the budget to destroy several cars in the process of making a scene. The Bullitt chase was shot over a period of five weeks. In Ronin, another film with iconic chase scenes, John Frankenheimer used more than 300 stunt drivers in some scenes (he also would fine the drivers if he could see their brake lights, to encourage more aggressive driving). These inherent advantages allow films to create a unique experience. Short of actually being a professional driver, these scenes are the only place where most people will ever experience the sensation of such speed.
It seems this sensation will also be the source of the drama in Rush. It takes a certain dash of crazy to strap into a half ton monster like that. Even if they aren’t driving into oncoming traffic in a Mini like Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity, Formula 1 drivers are still putting their life on the line every time they climb into their car.
To borrow from Tom Wolfe, you need The Right Stuff to take such risks. Wolfe’s 1979 book on U.S. postwar experimentation with rocket-powered aircraft and the book’s subsequent 1983 film adaptation dealt with the personal aspects of the risk-taking subjects, so Rush can look at the similarly interesting psyche of the racecar driver. In film, it really hasn’t been truly examined in any meaningful way, the wonderful 2010 Ayrton Senna documentary Senna being the outlier. But if Rush is done right, Howard might be able to marry the sheer exhilaration of movie races with the real drama of the drivers.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.