Racing is a popular sport, but at the same time, it’s very niche. The sport can be opaque, which is surprising about something with a premise as simple as seeing who’s the fastest around a track. But, like all things that human beings get ahold of, a simple premise becomes complicated over time. Rulebooks get thicker, jargon becomes more and more unintelligible to the uninitiated, and the barriers to learning how to appreciate a sport like racing grow too high for many casual observers. To many people watching on television, racing, especially on road courses, looks like a bunch of cars making turns with little context available beyond what’s coming from the announcers.
Any movie that attempts to portray racing, as Rush does with Formula One, is facing a unique challenge, in that in order to be successful, it has to appeal to people that are not fans of racing. That would be like making an action flick handicapped with the knowledge that most people in the audience do not like explosions, or a comedy mindful of those who have no sense of humor. Well, if the racing doesn’t do it, then, how about the people who do the racing?
Directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, Rush tells the story of the 1976 Formula One season, a season whose final outcome was decided by one point in the standings. The story is told from the perspective of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the driver who won the championship, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), who came in second. Hunt is dashing, reckless, full of swagger and bravado. He races on pure talent and adrenaline, competing purely for the thrill of it all, while Lauda is portrayed as a superb technical racer, his success borne of his attention to detail, his precision, and his relentless work to be the best. He’s a stick in the mud, and he’s an asshole, to boot. What we have, then, are polar opposites. Of course these two men would make for great movie characters.
It’s not just the approach the two take to racing that is mined to develop the film’s dichotomy. Hunt is a looker, and Howard spends a lot of time rotating extras in and out of Hunt’s bed. Lauda, in contrast, is shown as cold and distant, his decision to finally marry a calculated exercise, though hardly devoid of love. Hunt knows how to have a good time, while Lauda is a teetotaler, aware that hangovers and lack of sleep can play hell on a race car driver’s ability to compete. People like being around Hunt, while Lauda seems to deliberately antagonize people with his lack of tact. The characters may seem a little blunt when presented in such a fashion, but Howard, Hemsworth, and especially Bruhl, do a worthy job of keeping the characters from going flat.
Hemsworth is a face. His job in film has never been to be anything other than a hunk. Whether or not he can act hasn’t been all that important. In Rush, though, he has found a role where the good looks are actually part of the plot. In the movie, Hunt is a shallow, self-obsessed man-child, but simply being good-looking wasn’t enough to play the part. There is some depth to the character. While Hemsworth didn’t nail it completely, he did a fine job, the best of his short career.
Bruhl’s role was a bit tougher. It’s never made clear whether Lauda is simply misunderstood, or whether he’s just a jerk. Any concrete answer would have ruined Bruhl’s portrayal. Bruhl instead portrays Lauda as a man of deep complexity, at times tormented by his isolation among his fellow man, at other times openly disdainful of the way other people choose to live. Lauda, then, becomes an acquired taste for those around him, but also a person who engenders respect.
Formula One is a sport packed full of interesting people, not the least because only a person woefully unaware of their own mortality would ever drive one of those cars. In 1976, the two drivers at the top of the standings happened to be among the most interesting.
The events on screen are fudged a bit for film, but the key moment comes about two-thirds of the way through the season, when Lauda, in first place in the standings, is seriously injured in a fiery wreck on the Nurburgring Nordschleife, at one time the most dangerous circuit used in F1. From his hospital bed, Lauda watches Hunt close the standings, helpless to do anything about it. But watching his title slip away motivates Lauda to return to the track a little more than a month after his wreck, still healing and disfigured from his burns. As things happened in real life, conveniently for the movie, the championship comes down to the final race of the season, and the drama is played out for all it is worth.
Rush is a well-constructed movie, and is, without a doubt, good. Any overarching criticisms I have come with Ron Howard’s style of filmmaking. His films are very, very Hollywood. By that, I mean subtlety and nuance always seem to be sacrificed for mass appeal. For example, in the scene where Lauda crashes, there are closeups of the wheel assembly on Lauda’s car as he races along. The implications of these establishing shots are clear: the wheel is going to fail and Lauda is going to crash. In choosing to needlessly telegraph the outcome of this scene to the audience, we see the limits of Howard’s abilities as a storyteller. He much prefers to hold an audience’s hands lest they jump to their own conclusions. Howard is good at what he does, but he’s never great. The same can be said of Rush.