Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Christian McKay, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Olivia Wilde
Written By: Peter Morgan
Directed By: Ron Howard
Rush has to be the classiest movie about racecar driving ever made. Director Ron Howard is behind the wheel (pun intended) on this one, delivering another intelligent and thrilling drama. Howard has quite an eclectic resume of films of varying genres, but it’s this type of Oscar-baiting movie that he does best. Rush isn’t from the Ron Howard who made How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Dilemma. Rush is from the Ron Howard who gave us Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon.
It helps that Peter Morgan, the screenwriter behind The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and Frost/Nixon, penned the screenplay. Morgan infuses elegance into the world of Formula 1 racing. Based on a true story and set in 1976, Rush is about two very different men and the rivalry that would drive them, literally, to become better men. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is an English playboy and cocky ‘bad boy’ of the sport. When he’s not leaving his opponents in the dust on the track, he spends his time boozing, drugging, and bedding various stewardesses, nurses, models, or really any woman he comes into contact with. New to the game is Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a methodical man whose entire life is dedicated to racing, leaving him with a nonexistent social life off the track. Their distinct personalities and intense rivalry captivates the world. The entire globe is white-knuckled and on the edge of their seats as to who will become the next world champion of Formula 1, and the audience will be too.
What sets Rush apart from other sports movies and is a fundamental proponent of the film’s success, is that there is no clear hero or villain here. Both Hunt and Lauda are real people, chockfull of likable attributes and grave character flaws. Hunt is the flashier of the two, bringing an excitement to the sport and using his celebrity off the track to reap life’s lascivious benefits. Lauda is headstrong, matter-of-fact, and the unequivocal underdog. We always like to root for the underdog and at times you will. But Lauda doesn’t make it easy for the audience to get behind him, as he’s cold and asocial. That is until he falls in love. He meets his future wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), with whom he shows a very different side to his personality. Lauda has a heart after all. But it turns out that the womanizing Hunt has a heart too. Now we’re conflicted. It helps if you don’t know the outcome of this true story beforehand, as the uncertainty of who wins significantly amps up the excitement of the third act.
The movie does a take a little while to find its footing, as the second half of the film is notably better than the first half. It takes some time for the crux of the story to kick in and for the characters to develop, but once these pieces come together, the movie gets quite good. It’s a bit unfortunate that the first half of the film doesn’t have the same momentum. It’s not at all bad, it’s both interesting and essential, but the second half is where this thing really takes off. Howard has orchestrated some terrifically exciting racing sequences in his depiction of Formula 1, a sport in which one wrong move could cost you your life. Lauda’s character arc reaches its apex when he does in fact experience a horrific crash, resulting in severe burns to his face and body. It’s the most harrowing scene in the film and the point where the audience finally sympathizes with Lauda. For the first time, he comes to the realization that life off the track just might be more important than his profession.
Hemsworth and Brühl both deliver fantastic performances. With his long mane, Hemsworth doesn’t look much different from the God of Thunder he’s best known for playing, but this is the best acting achievement of his career. He’s tailor-made for the role of the vain and brazen Hunt. However it’s Brühl, best known as the Nazi war hero from Inglorious Basterds, who is the standout of the film. It’s not easy to root for an a-hole, but Bruhl manages to get you on board with the inhibited and damaged Lauda. He’s genuine, yet emotionally damaged, and as an audience we begin to understand him. At one point he says, “Happiness is a weakness. It means you have something to lose.” The opposing depictions of each man’s marriage is very telling of their personalities. Hunt throws a flashy spectacle of a wedding with vapid model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) whom he barely knows. He’s putting on a show. Lauda quietly elopes with his true love in a courthouse. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how Hunt and Lauda’s opposing dispositions define them both on and off the track.
Rush is the type of sports film that transcends its material and will be enjoyed by even those who know nothing about Formula 1 racing (such as myself). It’s an emotionally gripping drama about imperfect men, their relationship with one another, and how one learns more from their enemies than they do their friends. As Hunt and Lauda came face-to-face, I couldn’t help but think of another great rivalry, that between news anchors Ron Burgandy and Wes Mantooth. To quote Anchorman, I half expected one of the drivers to say “At the bottom of my gut, with every inch of me, I plain, straight hate you. But dammit, do I respect you!” That line is a perfect summation of Hunt and Lauda’s relationship.
Ron Howard is the consummate filmmaker who’s created a movie both beautifully shot and featuring some of the most thrilling track races of any movie of this ilk. With a stronger first half, Rush could have achieved greatness. But similarly to the main characters, the movie has its flaws; yet in the end it’s both solid and respectable.