As far as sports go, Formula One is far from the most popular. For the uninitiated, Formula One is the highest tier of single-seat auto racing in the world. It involves a single driver confined in the tight cockpit of a very small, very aerodynamic vehicle with more than several times the average horsepower of an everyday car. This car and driver are then pitted against like-minded individuals and their cars, covering lap after lap on some of the most varied—and even dangerous—tracks in the world. Some of the danger comes from the fact that these vehicles can achieve speeds upward of 200 miles per hour; in past years, Formula One was considered the most deadly sport in the world, racking up several driver deaths per year on average. In terms of raw excitement, few sports can match the sort of white-knuckle intensity that comes from a good Formula One race, which is why it seems a little odd that there hasn’t been a film on the sport before, brilliant documentary on Brazilian F1 world champion Ayrton Senna aside. However, Ron Howard seeks to rectify this with his latest film Rush, a film detailing the 1976 Formula One season, particularly the legendary rivalry between Austrian Ferrari driver Niki Lauda and British McLaren driver James Hunt.
Niki Lauda hails from a family of businessmen and economists. His true passion, though, is driving. When his family refuses to support him, Lauda turns his back on them, takes out a loan from the bank, and buys his way into Formula 3. It is on the Formula 3 circuit that he first locks horns with James Hunt, a philandering Brit with undeniable talent on the track. Hunt wins their first race, and doesn’t waste any more time thinking about Lauda until he finds out that the Austrian has moved up to Formula One and is now driving for Ferrari. Upon Hunt’s insistence, Hunt’s team is able to get their star into Formula One as well. However, it isn’t long before Niki Lauda is crowned world champion in 1975, much to Hunt’s chagrin. Hunt blames his car; Lauda blames Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude. The Brit refuses to admit defeat to Lauda and returns to his team more determined than ever to win the coming 1976 season. But, he is met with the news that they can no longer financially support his endeavors. Desperate and in a downward spiral, Hunt’s salvation comes in the form of McLaren, who agrees to sign the driver after losing one of their former members. Hunt is revitalized and—with his car an equal match to Lauda’s Ferrari—convinced that he is ready to take the fight to Lauda and knock the reigning champion off of the top spot. The Austrian scoffs at what he sees as overconfidence on Hunt’s part, but it isn’t long before the talking ends and the driving is front and center as the tumultuous 1976 season begins.
American audiences will remember Daniel Brühl from his fun turn as German war hero Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. In that film, Brühl was a single cog in a machine humming with acting talent, and it was difficult for him to shine alongside Brad Pitt and especially Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as Colonel Hans Landa. Being cast as one of two leads in Rush means there is no such problem in this film. Brühl plays Niki Lauda with an intensity that you don’t often find in these sports movie rivalries. His accent may be a little thick, but it certainly gains points for accuracy and realism. Beyond his vocal work, Brühl truly inhabits Lauda. We see the strategist, the analytical mind, the restraint off the racetrack, and the monstrous skill on it. Brühl’s Lauda is difficult to like at times, prickly and tough on the outside but maybe just a little bit insecure on the inside. However, Brühl gives Lauda a humanity and dignity that makes the character easy to root for by the end of the film.
While Brühl’s turn in this film can arguably be called “star-making,” the same can easily be said about his co-lead Chris Hemsworth as British driver James Hunt. Hemsworth, in my opinion, has always had the chops, but has never had the right role to show off his talent. That is, until Rush. James Hunt is, as Lauda describes him, “the party guy.” Hemsworth fully embraces this title and brings a swagger and charisma to the role that few actors could manage. Hemsworth’s Hunt is immediately likeable, and as the underdog, he is easy to cheer for throughout the film. However, Hunt isn’t always partying, and when his chances of another shot at the Formula One title are close to nil, Hemsworth brings out the man’s self-destructive tendencies without missing a beat. Overall, Hemsworth is magnetic in the lead. This is quite possibly his best performance to date.
Despite the extremely strong lead performances, the supporting roles, notably those played by Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, aren’t quite as good. Olivia Wilde does well enough with a limited role, but merely serves as eye candy as Hunt’s wife, for an extremely brief time, Suzy Miller. Meanwhile, Lara’s performance as Lauda’s wife seems even more dull and perfunctory. These problems seem to stem more from the writing than the actors’ abilities, however.
Speaking of the writing, Peter Morgan has put together an impressive script, for the most part. He has a good grasp of the two former Formula One drivers, and the banter between their two completely different personalities is particularly enjoyable. Morgan also manages to whittle down the 1976 season to the most important races, and his script also excels at showcasing the formation of the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt before their entrance into Formula One. The scenes of their lives outside of racing gives a better picture of the two men, with Hunt’s fast-lane lifestyle and Lauda’s more down-to-earth home life portraying two men with very different motivations for risking their lives driving on some of the deadliest tracks in the world. Flaws in the writing do exist, though. As mentioned above, the female characters are thinly written to the point of being completely ancillary characters, despite their closeness to the leads. Also, while Morgan’s script has an excellent arc of character development and really gets to the heart of Niki Lauda, James Hunt remains somewhat of an enigma by the end of the film. The viewer never finds out where exactly Hunt’s motivations come from and why he can be so self-destructive. Despite this, the strength of the acting and direction helps to mask the flaws of the script.
Ron Howard has proved to be an incredibly streaky director. He has made some truly excellent films, such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, the latter for which he won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. However, he has also made some pretty terrible films; his adaptations of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels are particularly messy affairs. With that said, I am pleased to say that he is back at the top of his game with Rush. Howard gets excellent performances out of his leads and makes the racing as thrilling as the real deal. These racing scenes are where Howard excels; excellent shots that enter the two drivers’ helmets—where their eyes alone express a wide gamut of emotions—and then cut to the inner workings of their cars only heighten the tension right before the actual racing. The racing itself is presented with an urgency that conveys the speed and danger of Formula One. The fireballs of wrecked cars on the track, in Howard’s hands, are things of surreal and deadly beauty. Indeed, Howard has engineered a true thrill ride with a pulsing heart.
The movie wouldn’t be nearly as good without some excellent cinematography. The aesthetic throughout the film is a combination of gritty and an olden-style, almost lived-in look. The race scenes are beautifully shot, with a focus on speed and the drivers behind the wheel. Scenes of racing in the rain on the dangerous Nurburgring track and the equally waterlogged final race of the 1976 season are particularly fun to watch, as the twitchy, insanely fast vehicles provide a nice juxtaposition to the steady rainfall. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer continues this year’s trend of percussive scores with electronic elements with his music for Rush. I’m a pretty big Zimmer fan, and I found his score complemented the film well, injecting it with just an extra bit of adrenaline.
Compared to Getaway, the other car movie I saw recently … wait, talking about these two films in the same sentence would be a disservice to Rush. That’s because Rush is an excellent film, with two very talented stars flaunting their acting ability, a once great director back on track after a string of misfires, and a script that real life Niki Lauda himself has called “very accurate.” Combine this with an exciting score and kinetic camerawork that bring the harrowing sport to life on the big screen for the first time in mainstream Hollywood, and you’ve got one of the best films of the year. If you’ve ever been interested in Formula One, love a good sports movie, or swoon at the sight of Chris Hemsworth, Rush comes highly recommended.
Rush rating: 8/10