I don’t know a thing about Formula One racing, but I do know a good story when I see one, and Rush - despite its awful, generic title - tells a damn good story. And it’s a true one, to boot. If you’re like me and don’t know anything about the epic racing rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, do yourself a favor and don’t look any further into it. Just go see the movie and experience one of the strangest, most inspiring sports tales of all time.
These two men had a lot in common: both were unlikely drivers, with Hunt seen as slumming from his aristocratic English heritage and Lauda leaving behind his family’s staid Austrian business. Both were geniuses behind the wheel. And both wanted, more than anything else, to win. But that’s where the similarities ended; Hunt was a handsome party boy who found the thrill in racing’s constant nearness to death (the film tells us that Formula 1 averages two driver deaths a year), while Lauda was a serious man who seeks ultimate precision on the track and in his life.
What’s remarkable about Rush is that Peter Morgan’s script slides your sympathy between the two just as deftly as Hunt sliding his car into a gap between rivals. Rush ends up being a step above most sports films because it allows each man’s philosophy to have its moment, to be presented as totally valid. Hunt believes that racing is passion and art, something you feel. He can’t explain to you why he’s so good behind a wheel, he just is. Lauda, on the other hand, personally redesigns his car to make it faster, and every move he makes is a calculation. For the Austrian life is about improving yourself so you can, but for the Englishman winning is about improving your life. It’s the grasshopper and the ant, but neither is wrong.
The sliding sympathies lead to a point where the audience is rooting for both racers as they go up against each other at the climax of their rivalry. From moment to moment you’ll be hoping Hunt pulls it out while cheering for each of Lauda’s calculated decisions. It’s actually masterful and wonderful and makes for a nuanced and exciting experience that more closely reflects life, where everything isn’t black and white.
Chris Hemsworth is titanic as Hunt; while the movie does give each man’s philosophy equal time it doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side of Hunt’s hard-partying lifestyle, and Hemsworth owns that. He’s constantly chasing something with the booze and the women and the racing, chasing a sense of satisfaction and happiness he can’t quite catch up with. Hunt is always hiding that side of himself - something shown perfectly during a tense press conference scene where he smiles and jokes with reporters while obsessively, nervously clicking a lighter just under the table - and Hemsworth finds the right balance to show us. We get enough of that to see Hunt’s depth, but also enough of his bravado and love of life to fall under his charismatic sway.
As his opposite number Daniel Bruhl is simply brilliant. Saddled with fake rat teeth that make him much less attractive than the man who literally plays a golden god in other films, Bruhl still exerts a powerful and magnetic presence. Lauda is, essentially, unlikable, but Bruhl forces you to like him. That’s magnificent work, because it’s so easy to like Hemsworth that Lauda could easily fall into the villain trap. Bruhl never allows it, and just as Lauda makes his pit crew respect him despite his frigid, difficult ways, Bruhl makes you understand and even love this man. Especially in the third act, where Bruhl undergoes trials that would have made me scoff if Rush wasn’t a true story.
The two actors are surrounded by excellent and capable supporting players, especially Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara as their significant others, but at heart this is a two-hander. Every other character is there in service of Hunt and Lauda - something the people in their lives may have felt as well. The movie makes a convincing argument that both of these men were, at heart, gargantuan assholes. Morgan’s script doesn’t shy away from that aspect, one of the things that makes Rush a truly adult movie. This is a nuanced film about nuanced men, men whose drive and ambition make them both great and terrible.
If there had been no credit on the picture I never would have guessed Ron Howard directed it. He’s working with his usual editing team of Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, but Rush doesn’t have the staid, middlebrow feel of their past work. Or maybe the middlebrow has caught up to the likes of Edgar Wright and the Wachowskis; while nowhere near as frantically coherent as the works of those filmmakers, Rush takes pages from directors and editors who are working in more heightened, expressive visual styles. Freeze frames, use of different stocks and inventive camera placement in the racing sequences make Rush feel light years from The DaVinci Code. The use of David Bowie’s Fame in a montage of James Hunt being famous feels a bit more Ron Howard-y, to be honest.
The first two thirds of the film are light on racing. The races happen, but they’re elided and shuffled out of the way. It seemed as the film would be skimping on the action, but the truth is that it saves the true racing sizzle for the last third, bringing truly white-knuckle sequences to life - especially white-knuckle if, like me, you have no idea how this true story ends, knowing only that the prologue indicates it ends with something terrible happening.
Rush is a great studio picture, the sort of solid and smart and fun and adult storytelling we used t expect from the movies. Now it feels like a treat to see a movie where the characters are fleshed out humans and the uplift, while present, isn’t spoon-fed to us. This is the Ron Howard movie I’ve wanted since the Apollo 13 and Backdraft days - strong, well-made and in the tradition of the great studio craftsmen.