Ron Howard’s “Rush” isn’t just a film about racing. While it captures the opulence and glamor inherent in Formula One through a virtuosic display of directing and cinematography, it also asks a deeper question: what is the psyche of a man who not only looks death in the face, but also relishes the risk of death? The scope is wide but nuanced, developing layers of a story that could have easily become oversimplified. With exceptional performances from its leads and a tight, thoughtful screenplay, “Rush” transcends the limitations of the sports genre to explore the fine line between life and death.
The film follows one of the most passionate rivalries in Formula One history, that between racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Hunt, who famously had the phrase “Sex, breakfast for champions” sewn onto his uniform, is wild and magnetically charismatic, providing the perfect contrast to the austere, acerbic Lauda, known as “The Rat” by his competitors. Where Hunt succeeds by his brute speed on the track, Lauda does the same with his technical genius and precision. The film focuses on the 1976 Formula One season, when the rivalry between the two came to a head.
It would be too easy to make Hunt, an underdog, into the film’s hero while relegating Lauda’s role to that of a villain. Screenwriter Peter Morgan refuses to reduce his characters to such rudimentary roles. Morgan makes great use of parallelism, which is apparent from the beginning, in which both drivers narrate their bland familial backgrounds, highlighting the inherent similarities despite their stark differences in personality. The choice to create a binary plotline provides insight into each of the men’s characters that could not be achieved otherwise. It is Lauda, however, with his stone-cold pragmatism, rather than Hunt who emerges as the grounding force of the narrative, and the film is better for it by avoiding black and white characterizations. The freshness in Morgan’s script lies in the fact that it is not about the triumph of one racer over the other: while the film structurally follows typical sports movie protocol, it doesn’t fall to its narrative clichés.
It’s at the racetrack, filmed with great care and meticulousness, where the film hits its stride. The races are not perfunctory; they are directed with purpose, with the right mix of introspection and action to emphasize the stakes. “I accept every time I get in my car there is a 20 percent chance I will die,” says Lauda to his fellow racers. Howard makes this sentiment clear. The visuals of the engines revving up are paired with an outstanding score from Hans Zimmer, interspersed with moments of opportune silence as Lauda and Hunt attempt to weave their way around the track, creating an exhilarating and tense experience. Playing with perspectives, Howard lends many scenes believability by acknowledging different viewpoints: the driver, the general public, and the spectators. By doing so, he breathes life into many scenes that could otherwise feel stagnant.
The actors behind the wheel, Hemsworth and Brühl, display an easy chemistry and find the right mixture of contempt and respect between Hunt and Lauda. Hemsworth plays Hunt wonderfully as carefree with the perfect amount of self-awareness, but it is ultimately Brühl who steals the attention from his co-star with his precise, multi-layered portrayal of Lauda. Though Brühl mimics Lauda’s Austrian-inflected English and mannerism to perfection, Brühl’s successful performance rests on his ability to humanize and develop Lauda’s character.
Unlike Hunt, Lauda was not naturally gregarious, and at times was somewhat difficult due to his straightforward personality. Brühl fully encompasses the nastier parts of Lauda’s personality, but also shows a man capable of great love and a character of unparalleled resilience. In the film, Lauda suffers a near-fatal accident, severely burning his body and most of his face. Brühl exposes Lauda’s frustrations and stubbornness to return on the track with heartbreaking intensity as he goes through the excruciating routine of mechanically pumping his lungs and replacing his bandages all while seething and watching Hunt win more and more races. The scene is a turning point in the film, and Brühl magnificently acquits himself to changing the film’s emotional tide.
After two lackluster, critically panned films, “Rush” shows Howard back in top form. Evoking the danger and adrenaline of Formula One in the ’70s, “Rush” is able to retain its blockbuster appeal while providing enough evocative human drama to complicate its narrative.
—Staff writer Neha Mehrotra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.