That was a helluva rush.
Director Ron Howard weaves an exhilarating, in-depth recounting of the events of the 1970s Formula One rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, managing to avoid many of the trappings of the “inspirational sports film” stigma.
If you’re not a particularly huge Formula One fan (or, like me, are entirely oblivious to the goings-on of the sport), you probably don’t have any idea of the historical events upon which this film is based. That’s ok. The suspense is merely amplified to tangibility (i.e. you may have to remind yourself to breathe here and there). No matter your experience with the international auto-racing circuit, Rush’s white-knuckle races and fascinating character studies appeal to all.
The 1976 Formula One season hardly needs any Hollywood story touch-ups, as it brought more than its own share of fist-clenching drama (though worry not, no spoilers here). Besides the fame and fortune of victory, drivers of that era fought merely to make it to the end of the year. As stated in the outset of the film, on average two out of the twenty-five racers per season died on the track. This game of brinksmanship with death lingers on the minds of racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and it’s how each deals with a personal proximity with mortality that propels Rush to the finish line.
Stars Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl fall easily into their respective roles, neither fully capturing the spotlight while never fading into narrative irrelevance. Contrary to expectation, it’s Brühl’s Niki Lauda who steals the show by the time the credits roll. Lauda is, arrogant, fiercely driven, and often downright rude, but flawlessly skilled behind the wheel. Brühl explores every nuance of the racing champion, bringing out the borderline insanity required to hurl a tin can around a corner at 200mph, as well as Lauda’s more subtle, deep appreciation of life outside the track. In particular, his scenes with Marlene Lauda (Alexandra Maria Lara) are among the most powerful in the film.
Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt is deserving of recognition as well. A perfect real-life foil to Niki Lauda, James Hunt was exactly the brash, charismatic, handsome star Lauda was not, and Hemsworth takes all those qualities in stride. Even in Rush’s darker moments, which generally find Hunt at the bottom of a bottle, Hemsworth stayed true to his character and does not overdramatize the man for the sake of an award nod.
Howard makes excellent use of Peter Morgan’s script, moving seamlessly between heart-stopping races and touching, very real character studies. Rush is a gorgeous movie, incorporating vibrant color palettes to evoke the raw intensity of Formula One races, which, combined with the lush European landscapes and 70s lifestyles of the main characters, make for a plethora of eye candy. The audio mix, too, brilliantly encapsulates the grit and ferocity of driving a Formula One “car” (or “bomb on wheels” as James Hunt so aptly puts it), as you hear every crunch of gravel on the racecourse and feel the roar of the engines in your gut.
What is most impressive about Rush, however, is that it doesn’t try too hard. To put out a sports-influenced movie nowadays is to invite comparisons to Rememer the Titans, Miracle, Secretariat, or any of the other by-the-numbers, feel-good sports films of yesteryear. This isn’t that. Rush succeeds in telling a brilliant and true story without trying to force any emotional beats or heavy-handed moral message upon the audience. It’s everything a Hollywood blockbuster wants to be — suspenseful, exciting, funny, touching, uplifting — but only because the history and the real men behind the film lived it that way. Ron Howard relays that story onto us with an honesty rarely exhibited in a “based on a true story” film. Any questions the film asks about morality are answered by the personal philosophies of each main character, Lauda leaning towards the safe side of life and Hunt loving the daily dance with death, but neither are deemed “right.” Rush allows you to watch, enjoy, and leave with exactly whatever it is you want to leave with.
In short, you feel the Rush.