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Faster! The Persistent, Reckless Appeal of Driving in the Movies

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Rush (directed by Ron Howard)

On the highways where 55 mph prevails, where drivers must wear safety belts, not use a cell phone, not be intoxicated, must not be having sex with anyone in the front seat, must have a license, insurance, not to mention a parking spot, here we go with Rush (Ron Howard’s new film). In that one word, all the discipline is sucked out in the slipstream, and reckless excitement is worshipped yet again. Driving is as practical and mechanical as it should be, hedged in by legality, carbon footprints, staying one side of the road or another, and GPS. But driving is fantasy, too; it’s being lost and driving all the faster. There are nearly as many automobiles in America as handguns—that essential measure of dementia. But whereas guns tend to be blunt instruments, ugly deciders, necessary lead-shots, we all rejoice in the culture that knows the car is us! It’s the gas pedal—the very outlawry we crave in life.

Is it an accident that moving film and moving cars arrived so close together in our history? Los Angeles was able to expand because the car and the new highways became an essential technology—one that was quickly celebrated in the wild car chases of the Keystone Cops. The link between the agony we feel on finding a dent in our wing and the release that comes from seeing multiple pile-ups, explosions, and submersions in the ocean is sublime. Take your pick: Thelma and Louse going off the cliff; Gene Hackman in The French Connection, determined to save New York by destroying its traffic control; the car and its corpse slowly entering the primeval mud in Psycho; an L.A. bus that cannot slow down; and Steve McQueen in Bullitt making it clear that San Francisco was just a pinball machine.

McQueen was greedy for sex and money, but I’m not sure that either had the charge of cars. There’s an iconic shot in The Getaway, in which McQueen also starred, where he is lounging on a bed with Ali McGraw and many dirty, tattered bank notes. Still, I suspect McQueen would have been happier with the kind of red Ferrari you can take to bed with you. He did insist on doing a race-car movie, Le Mans, and it suffers from a limitation that affects all such films: little men inside cars and protective helmets are not too vivid or visible as sources of emotion.

In 1976, there was a "duel"—the focus of Rush—between two apparently opposite drivers: the wild man James Hunt from Britain (an Oliver Reed type) and the taciturn Austrian, Nicki Lauda (Rutger Hauer perhaps). Lauda crashed and nearly burned to death. With a plastic face, he drove on, and the two men became friends as much as rivals. It was also a moment in which race-car drivers were every bit the high-octane, right-stuff macho figures that astronauts had failed to be. They drove beautifully and behaved terribly—better than its opposite? Gone were the days (pre-war and into the ’50s) when romantic champions drove in open cockpits, with silk scarves at their necks—Juan Fangio, Alberto Ascari, and all the way to Stirling Moss, who was the cross-over in British driving between James Bond adventurers and auto geniuses like Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.

To mention Moss is an excuse to start a short list of great motor-racing films. Oddest of all, a 70-minute movie that few will have seen: Mille Miglia (1968), made for British television, about Moss and his navigator, Dennis Jenkinson, rehearsing for the classic Italian road race for sports cars. Michael Bryant played Moss; Ronald Lacey was Jenkinson, and the screenplay was written by Athol Fugard. I recall it as being brilliant and suspenseful, but I wonder if it still exists?

Second, I’d go for Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop in which James Taylor and his mechanic (Dennis Wilson) challenge Warren Oates in a race across America. It’s a film about much more than cars—the landscape, the girl they pick up (Laurie Bird), and a unique deadpan humor—but it’s a great road and racing picture.

Courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency
Aryton Senna as himself.

At the documentary level, nothing matches Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010), about the rivalry between Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost—I’d be surprised if that wasn’t what prompted Ron Howard to make RushSenna uses a lot of newsreel footage of Grand Prix races over the period 1984–94, and it becomes a fascinating character study about the two men, and enough to plead the case that the most car-mad actor looks timid or brittle if put behind the wheel of a racing car on film. And if you want a really hot woman driver, I’d go for Bonnie Bedelia playing drag-racing driver Shirley Muldowney in Jonathan Kaplan’s Heart Like a Wheel (1983). (The real Muldowney was very scathing about Bedelia, and once charged that the actress got out of a race car as if she was getting up from the table.)

Still, one of the most enjoyable women race-drivers is Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), the suddenly appointed driver of a Los Angeles bus that must not drop beneath 50 mph if its bomb is to remain calm. Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) is an outstanding suspense thriller, yet its script (by Graham Yost) has a very witty take on keeping up with the rest of the highway. The brazen simplicity of its ordeal only strengthens our complex pleasures at having that elderly bus blow up.

There are duds, too, like Driven, in which Sylvester Stallone is a retired driver who is called back to advise a kid. Then there was Grand Prix, which had James Garner, Yves Montand, and Toshiro Mifune driving with too little story. You’d have to include Days of Thunder, the NASCAR epic where Robert Duvall is so good as the team manager while Tom Cruise (playing “Cole Trickle”) is far-fetched as the driver. There were directors who drove. Howard Hawks enjoyed cars all his life and kept coming back to the subject—from The Crowd Roars (1932, Jimmy Cagney) to Red Line 7000 (1965, James Caan)—but they’re not among his best, and I’d give them both up for just a few moments of Bogart’s Philip Marlowe sitting in his parked car in The Big Sleep.

Years ago, when such things were new, I was with my son Nicholas at the amusement park in the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas. (It was called Coney Island then.) They had a virtual reality game where you sat in a driver’s seat, took the wheel, and drove your way round some classic motor-racing circuits as they unwound on the screen in front of you. It took practice. When you started out, you reckoned you were a demon but you were only doing 70 mph. Get it up to 180, and you were scattering cars, grandstands, hillsides, and television crews as you rode. My son and I were shaking with the tension when we stopped, and we agreed it was one of the most exhilarating movie experiences we had ever had. But we had to concede that we didn’t really have the right stuff, except in our dreams. But without a doubt we understood the rush because everyone wants to drive the getaway car.

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.