If ever a movie has lived up to its title, Ron Howard’s Rush is certainly such a film. This biopic of sorts is a thrilling examination of the egos, talents and rivalry of Formula One champions James Hunt and Niki Lauda through the course of a drama-charged 1976 season. The rarefied air of Formula One has always been ripe for the plucking by filmmakers – action, danger, money, sex and exotic locations are part and parcel of the sport after all – yet so few have been able to truly capture this world effectively on film. Whilst some previous efforts, such as 1966’s Grand Prix, have been far better than others (2001’s Driven comes to mind as particularly bad), Rush is the best fictionalised account of Formula One racing that I have experienced.
Howard has enjoyed a prolific career as a director with far more hits (Parenthood, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) than misses (Far and Away, DaVinci Code) and Rush is a return to form following the awfulness that was The Dilemma. Working from a script from Peter Morgan, who also wrote Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland, The Queen and the under-appreciated 360, Howard has constructed a film that focusses very much on the various characters and their relationships whilst capturing the danger and excitement that was Formula One racing in the 1970’s. The drivers and the cars of that period were certainly much less clinical than those we see today and the film very much captures the essence of the time. A time, it must be said, when the sport and the drivers taking part were much more interesting than any of the current batch of posturing prima donna Formula One competitors.
Australia’s Chris Hemsworth plays James Hunt, a cocky, handsome and extremely talented British driver who emerges as the only serious challenger to defending champion Niki Lauda, a focussed, obsessed Austrian who ultimately emerged as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport with three World Championship wins. Hemsworth is fine as the playboy Hunt (who died of a heart attack in 1993 at 45 years of age), while Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) inhabits the staid perfectionism of Lauda to great effect. In fact, Howard has done a good job in making us care about these two characters when neither is particularly likeable on the surface. Lauda seems certain to defend his championship until a horrific crash at the notorious Nurburgring circuit in Germany leaves him in hospital with severe burns to his face and body. Despite the severity of his injuries, Lauda returns to the track just six weeks after the crash in an effort to deny Hunt his shot at championship glory.
In addition to racing action – re-created using cars sourced from collectors – that is far more exciting than the coverage we see on television today, the film focusses on the personal and professional rivalry between Hunt and Lauda and their relationships with those around them (teammates, wives, team owners etc). When the womanising Hunt marries model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), the relationship is doomed for failure, while Lauda, acutely aware of the shortcomings of his personality and appearance (members of his own team refer to him as The Rat because of his protruding front teeth), marries Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). Whilst the two men are poles apart in their attitude to racing and the opportunities it brings, there remains a mutual respect bordering on friendship between them that is emphasised on a couple of occasions in the film, perhaps most obviously when Hunt assaults a journalist who mocks Lauda’s facial injuries at a press conference.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, Rush is a high octane exploration of the world of Formula One in the 1970’s through a character study of two men who share a passion to succeed. The period details read as accurate and Howard refuses to take sides, ensuring that both men are afforded equal coverage, leaving it up to the audience to decide where their sympathies lie.