Ron Howard delivers a uniquely dualistic take on the scrappy underdog story that pits this reviewer’s affection for Chris Hemsworth’s splendid hair against this reviewer’s awe at Daniel Brühl’s casual dominance of every scene.
Directed by Ron Howard / Written by Peter Morgan / Starring Daniel Brühl, Chris Hemsworth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde / Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle / Music by Hans Zimmer / Production by Working Title, Revolution Films
Throwing caution to the wind in its commitment to the Print The Legend maxim, Rush details the parallel rise and rivalry of two luminaries of Formula 1 Racing: James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Covering a bitter but respectful feud between the two drivers, Peter Morgan’s script largely exchanges historical accuracy for a juicy, soapy conflict between two incredibly talented contenders, who reflect and oppose each other in equal measure. Morgan’s heightened emphasis on the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda bleeds into every aspect of the film, giving a hyper-real snapshot of the intense world of Formula 1. Chris Hemsworth’s Hunt is Thor in fifth gear with a far more dazzling mane and a feckless confidence that racing is merely the stage on which the world might witness his greatness, his talent and his massive, manly balls. Before he finds fame and fortune, Hunt meets Lauda (Daniel Brühl) at 1970 Formula 3 race at Crystal Palace. Rat-faced and calculating, Lauda is another young upstart aiming to reach the top spot on the podium with his precision driving. The immediate clash between Hunt’s jocular faith in his own raw talent and Lauda’s total commitment to discipline sparks a battle of wills and wits that spans the coming years and culminates with the climax of the 1976 racing season at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Chris Hemsworth, appearing without his co-star on Rush’s
stateside posters, plays Hunt as a born rock star but a hollow one. Hunky Hunt and his celebrity lifestyle are the bait before we switch to the far more complex character of Niki Lauda, whose dramatic inner journey is only intensified by the viewer’s own struggle to root for such a pointedly unlikeable character. From his first appearance, Lauda is unrepentant in his repulsiveness. He is a man striving to be a precision instrument and the fluff and frills of Hunt’s celebrity chafe against Lauda’s pragmatic philosophy. Lauda and Hunt frequently swap their positions as the favourite and the underdog but it is Lauda who is put through the ringer at every turn; forced to make decisions that reveal deeper truths about his outlook on life, competition, and the risk of a horrible death on the track. Brühl and Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda’s wife Marlene inhabit the period milieu with convincing and understated style in a film mostly lacking either quality. The supporting cast slot into place well enough but often come off as cool young actors of the moment playing in a hamper of their parents’ old clothes. Brühl dominates every second of his screen time and crafts a character more compelling than the film that surrounds him. Lauda’s naked ambition, apparent lack of human empathy, and raw moments of vulnerability are the stuff good Bond villains are made of. Brühl’s prickly sideways glances and shark-like menace would be well suited to the role of James Bond’s arch-nemesis, Blofeld*.
These qualities are also the stuff that great anti-heroes are made of and Lauda emerges as a more highly evolved and sophisticated icon than Hunt, the rolling stone.
As a backdrop, Formula 1 racing is so well suited to cinema that it seems incredible how rarely the sport has been translated to cinema. Fast cars and brutal crashes are not rare in cinema but perhaps the frequent exclusion of Formula 1 from the big screen is due to the same difficulties inherent in capturing the agony and the ecstasy of great painters at work: the tremendous engineering inside a championship car is hard to explain and even harder to engage with. Rush overcomes this by throwing out any scenes of designers at drafting tables or sweaty mechanics wrenching and bolting. The clear focus on Hunt’s stardom and Lauda’s obsession renders this somewhat of a moot point but the lack of focus on the art of the engineering stands somewhat at odds with the way that Rush skips quickly through momentous world championship races, propelling us towards only the biggest events in-line with the characters’ arcs. This sacrifices the white-knuckle tension of the earlier competitive races as well as any possibility of indulging Formula 1 fans excited to see these races play out on the big screen. Anthony Dod Mantle’s intense camerawork is perfectly suited to capturing the speed of Formula 1 but feels somewhat restrained, as if Ron Howard is worried that Rush might turn into an action movie. With a central character as compelling as Niki Lauda and the thrilling action of Formula 1 racing, why does Howard insist on tapping the breaks?
* [Updated rant] Although Christoph Waltz was recently announced as the villain of Bond 24, no official confirmation has yet been given as to whether or not his character, Oberhauser, will become Ernst Stavro Blofeld. If Sam Mendes decides to do the right and thing and put the sinister white cat in Daniel Brühl’s hands then I’ll not fail to remind everyone that I called it! Come on, Sam, give our man Daniel a call!