Film Review: Rush

As sports biographies go, 'Rush' goes at record-setting speeds, with the technically proficient Ron Howard in the director’s seat providing a ferociously exciting backdrop for the real-life rivalry of two Olympian gods in Formula One sports cars.

Ron Howard spent his “awkward years” as a child actor, preparing himself for what he really wanted to do: direct, boldly floor-boarding his way into the profession with a couple of varoom! programmers—Eat My Dust! (1976) and Grand Theft Auto (1977)—agreeing to star in the former if Roger Corman would bankroll Howard’s feature-directing debut in the latter. Such, ignobly, was Howard’s Beginning.

If you’re interested in seeing how far and how fast he has come in 22 features and 36 years, you might check out his confidently swaggering return to the genre, Rush. It pretty much leaves his quaint breakthroughs into filmmaking at the starting gate.
Abetted by a Grade-A script from Peter Morgan—taking another of his sports breaks from the world of contemporary politics that has twice put him in the Oscar running (via Frost/Nixon and The Queen)—Howard does a deep-focus on the racetrack rivalry of two Formula One champions that was burning up the tracks and the headlines in Europe at precisely the same time he was making his big move in film.

Zigzagging back and forth in the lead for the 1976 World Championship in F1 racing were James Hunt, a devil-may-care Brit with a reckless disregard for his own personal safety, and Niki Lauda, an Austrian pragmatist more interested in building a better racecar than a better racer. Hunt had no qualms about laying his life on the finish line if it meant winning the race, reasoning that women love men who are close to death. In stark contrast to this was Lauda, a heady strategist who preferred to perfect the machine so it would do the heavy lifting with minimum risk to the driver.

Inevitably, this is a collision course, each coming at the other from opposite ends of the sports-car spectrum, giving the picture the illusion of more depth than you usually encounter in such an environment. These two could never have been friends, although they somehow were in real life, but Morgan opts to emphasize their differences for dramatic effect. Occasionally, he takes a loftier overview and has someone describe them as “men who drive in circles looking for normalcy.”

Spot-on casting physically underlines the character contrast. What we have here are heroes from different villages: As the sexy, charismatic Hunt with the killer smile and long-flowing golden curls, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth looks like your garden-variety Greek god; he happens to be a Norse god—Thor in the Marvel Comics movie series. Daniel Brühl, the Spanish-born German actor (Inglourious Basterds), relies on some false front teeth to approximate the look of the cerebral and decidedly unglamorous Lauda, nicknamed “The Rat” because of his buckteeth.

The flamboyant exploits of this dueling duo on the racetracks of Europe went mostly unnoticed on these shores. The one tidbit that did manage to penetrate the American consciousness occurred when the first Mrs. Hunt, Suzy Miller, became the fourth of five Mrs. Richard Burtons. She is played here by Olivia Wilde, who is virtually unrecognizable in a blonde wig. Lauda’s wife, Marlene Kraus, also had a movie-star amour in her past, having once been Curt Jurgens’ main squeeze. Alexandra Maria Lara makes something special of this role, trying to break down her bottled-up husband and bring him into some kind of emotional clearing.

The critical showdown between the two drivers occurs at the Nürburgring track in Germany, sometimes called “The Graveyard,” during a blinding rainstorm. Lauda tried to get the race canceled because of the weather, but Hunt challenged that and prevailed. The upshot was that the super-cautious Lauda had a fiery crack-up, and the minute he spent trapped in his flaming car did great damage to his face and lungs. Watching Hunt score victory after victory from rehab strengthened his resolve, and, astonishingly, he was back in the race in 42 days, competing like hell.

One of his toughest hurdles on his comeback trail was a press conference in which one incredibly tactless and unfeeling reporter wondered aloud how Lauda’s marriage could survive his face. When Hunt gives the writer the answer he deserves—by pulverizing him in the hallway—the movie audience cheered.

The racetrack action is where the film comes vividly alive, thanks to the gritty, exciting, in-your-face photography of Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire). Jagged, erratic editing from Dan Hanley and Mike Hill heightens the reality of the action, and Hans Zimmer has packaged it in a thrilling, pulsating score.

One of the film’s leading characters doesn’t live to The End; what causes his death—in light of the life that he led—is a genuine and startling surprise, a jest of God.