Hollywood has long tried to make films about auto racing that would strike a chord with general audiences. So far, the commercial successes have been few -- and, with rare exceptions, the racing has served as little more than a noisy background that fed speed and thrills to another story line.
"I mean, there's John Frankenheimer's 'Grand Prix' from 1966, and that's about it," Mario Andretti said in a telephone interview, adding that he had seen almost every racing movie made. "Grand Prix" won three Academy Awards for technical achievement; an auto racing movie has never won an Oscar for Best Picture.
"I'm sorry, that's it," Andretti said, offering a critique informed by the many championships to his credit.
But that bleak assessment could change. Andretti said he had hope for the prospects of the new Ron Howard film, "Rush," which chronicles the 1976 Formula One season and the duel between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for that year's driver championship. The movie opens nationwide on Sept. 27.
"It was probably a good choice for subject matter on the part of the filmmakers," said Andretti, whose opinion carries extra weight because he raced, and won, against both men. Moreover, he won the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, the climax of both the racing season and the movie.
It was a season full of dramatic twists. Lauda had won five races when the circuit came to the Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, where his Ferrari spun into a guardrail and caught fire. His helmet came off, and he suffered extensive burns. Though Lauda missed two races while he was hospitalized, he still led Hunt in World Championship points when, despite his painful injuries, he returned to competition just six weeks after the near-fatal crash. Pulling a helmet down over his burns was every bit as excruciating as depicted in the movie, Lauda said at the London premiere on Sept. 2.
He said the movie was so realistic that it helped him to recall forgotten details of the crash.
"Although I never lost consciousness, I never realized what my rescuers were doing to try to keep me alive," he said. "I was only concerned with my own survival."
Andretti said he was impressed with the trailers he had seen. Others in racing who attended the London premiere or other screenings have been almost unanimous in their praise. And this is a tough crowd to please.
Although the battle for the championship was compelling in its own right, where the film has received the most praise is in the script and the highly charged chemistry between the actors who play the main characters -- Daniel Brühl as the dour Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as the flamboyant Hunt.
"Most modern-era car racing movies, from 'Grand Prix' and 'Le Mans' to 'Days of Thunder', have been far stronger at portraying the excitement on the track than at developing interesting downtime drama among the characters," wrote Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter, noting that the reverse is true with "Rush," which devotes far more time to exploring the personalities of the drivers.
"Mozart vs. Salieri. Kennedy vs. Khrushchev. Gates vs. Jobs," Variety's film critic, Peter Debruge, wrote, adding that "Rush" is "not just one of the great racing movies of all time, but a virtuoso feat of filmmaking in its own right, elevated by two of the year's most compelling performances. It's high-octane entertainment that demands to be seen on the big screen, assembled for grown-ups and executed in such a way as to enthrall even those who've never watched a race in their life."
Closer to the sport, the retired Formula One driver David Coulthard said he found the racing scenes credible, although "no film can quite capture what really goes on inside the car."
"But I thought the characters were compelling and believable," Coulthard said in an interview at the Italian Grand Prix last week. "I have a rather personal perspective on the two men, as I know Niki, of course, from my association with Mercedes, and I met James when I was a very young driver."
The fast-living Hunt died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45.
One of the few tempered comments about the movie or its performances came from Bernie Ecclestone, who controls the commercial rights to Formula One.
At the Italian Grand Prix, Mr. Ecclestone said that no one could ever play Hunt like Hunt himself: "He would have livened the film up a lot."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.