An authentic-feeling re-creation of the 1970s rivalry between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, Ron Howard’s Rush presents an engaging portrait of the dynamic between the two men – more so than the men themselves – that drove them over the edge, and ahead of the competition during the thrilling 1976 racing season.
It’s also a rousing return to form for director Howard; coming off the career-worst The Dilemma in 2011, Rush ranks right alongside his best films. That’s thanks in no small part to a smart, observant script by Peter Morgan (who also teamed with the director on the engaging Frost/Nixon, which was, coincidentally, set right around the same time), which eschews some of the expected racing movie tropes to focus on the mentality of its characters.
Hunt was a good-looking, hard-living playboy who used drugs, alcohol, and women; while never seriously injured on the track, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 45. As played by Chris Hemsworth, he nevertheless exhibits a considerable amount of charm; still, we’re wary of rooting for the character and his reckless attitude.
Lauda, as played by Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds), couldn’t be more different: no-nonsense, straight-laced, he cuts right to the heart of matters without much concern for the impression he makes on others. That makes him somewhat unlikable, both to the audience and to other characters in the film, a fact that is underscored a number of times – most notably during a key racer’s meeting in which Hunt effortlessly sways the room against him.
But Rush is not really about Hunt or Lauda – not exactly. While one or the other features in almost every scene, Howard and Morgan never puts us in either’s corner; unusually, here’s a big racing movie that pits two disparate rivals against each other – and we’re not realty rooting for either one of them.
Instead, it’s the story of their rivalry that takes center stage: the passion each man felt to not just win the 1976 racing circuit, but to beat the other. Neither Hunt nor Lauda is a particularly likable character, but that doesn’t really matter in the end. Rush is an engaging portrait of the dynamic created between them; this is a fascinating story all by itself, and we don’t need to identify with or root for one side to make it work.
While most of the story takes place in and around the tracks, however, the film is also careful to paint an intimate portrait of each man’s personal life. Hunt finally settled down with wife and model Suzy Miller (memorably played by Olivia Wilde), and the two made headlines. Lauda, meanwhile, shared a quieter romance with wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara); one of Rush’s best scenes is their initial meet cute on an Italian motorway.
The period detail in the film is superb, perfectly re-creating the feel for a wide range of locales, many of which were shot on location by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). Sets and costumes are a perfect match. For a Hollywood biopic, Rush feels unusually authentic; glimpses of the real-life Hunt and Lauda (and their wives) at the end of the film underscore the fact. Lauda was consulted during production, and was reportedly happy with the final result.
While the story of the Hunt and Lauda and the 1976 racing season will be well-known to fans (a recent BBC documentary covered the same ground) I walked into Rush knowing nothing about the characters or the story – and was thoroughly captivated by the events of the movie. I suggest taking the same approach if you’re unfamiliar with the story, and the film can be whole-heartedly recommended to non-racing fans.
Upon its release, Rush immediately became one of the best professional racing movies ever made. Not that there’s been much competition – Grand Prix, Bobby Deerfield, Days of Thunder and Driven come to mind – though I do have a soft spot for Steve McQueen’s single-focused Le Mans.