It’s been a while since Ron Howard could pull you to the edge of your seat and thrill you with memorable characters walking a razor thin line between life and death, but with Rush he rekindles that experience.
Based on the real rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s, the film no doubt bends truth to generate conflict and entertainment. Their real relationship was not as fraught as the film depicts, but it seems a natural evolution of their differing world-views. Chris Hemsworth’s Hunt is a playboy with flowing blonde hair drinking his way through the decade leaving a trail of fleeting relationships with women in his wake. By contrast Daniel Brühl’s Lauda is a methodical perfectionist, absorbed with technique.
Hunt lives each day as if it’s his last. Lauda reduces the sport to a mathematical equation, surmising that he has 20% chance of dying each time he goes out on the track. Yet both are united by their passion for racing. From their first meeting they butt heads; the sport is inherently competitive and populated by bold opinionated men. But over time they recognise the same passion for racing in each other, to profound affect as Lauda suffers a devastating crash at Nürburgring in 1976 during the height of a cat-and-mouse chase to win the ’76 season.
Lauda is pulled from a fiery wreckage and endures gruesome medical operations, his face half burnt off. While in bed getting treatment, he watches Hunt on TV continue to race, his claim on the championship seems assured, and it spurs Lauda to recovery, giving him the strength to prevail. When he climbs back into an F1 car 42 days after hospitalisation, the world and his wife is stunned and questions his sanity, but only Hunt can understand the compulsion driving Lauda. Hunt is partially to blame for Lauda’s accident in the first place, having forced the race to occur despite Lauda’s protestations, and he is at the same time responsible for getting Lauda out of the hospital bed and back into a car. The ’76 season is not over; the destiny of one of these men is to walk away holding that championship cup.
Peter Morgan’s script doesn’t become overbearing with the pair becoming best friends, there’s always tension whenever they share a scene, but also a grudging respect for one another. When you live in that world, it’s hard for outsiders to relate, so the two are kindred spirits despite their differing outlooks to life, with Hunt relishing the high of cheating death with every race, and Lauda revelling in the catharsis of man and machine melding to winning affect.
The film opens with the ominous Nürburgring race, and is wise enough to flash back to their small beginnings before the cars start racing. By the time we’ve raced through their lives and ascension to F1, we know what’s at stake when Hunt bullishly convinces the other drivers to head onto the rain-slicked track despite Lauda’s protestations that its too dangerous. He is tragically proven right in Howard’s brilliantly effective recreation of history, even utilising the very same corner of track for filming.
This attention to detail is prevalent all throughout the film, and also interspersed with actual footage of the era and the pair’s races. Howard is a director who loves a big emotional hook, and building a world that can stand up to some scrutiny, and he achieves great detail in the world of 1976 and F1. For a layman to the motor sport like myself, I found it fascinating, and though I find the idea of cars going round in circles boring, the film sparked a respect for the men who do it, and an interest in the machinations of the whole racing process.
Hemsworth and Brühl are both excellent in their roles, with Brühl coming ahead for his precise depiction of a man perpetually underestimated and mocked for his features, in comparison to Hemsworth who probably had no trouble channelling a playboy, though he has more depth to him than that. A particularly great moment is when he defends Lauda’s honour in the aftermath of a harsh press conference. Howard’s film is not populated by A-list stars distracting from the heart of the story, although Olivia Wilde does show up as a supermodel sporting a pretty decent English accent.
As mentioned the film doesn’t handle Hunt and Brühl’s relationship like a typical rivalry nor friendship. One of my worries was that it would do something as obvious as having Hunt cheating with Brühl’s wife, but thankfully it avoids such clunky sources of conflict.
One of the most compelling moments in the entire film is late on as Lauda’s legend is becoming cemented, he wins a race and for the first time we see people flock to him and carry him out of his car. This, after having watched Hunt adored by his fans for years, and suddenly to see Lauda himself taste the intoxicating rush of fame and idolatry himself was a joyous moment.
The film moves swiftly through the most dramatic moments of their lives, with a pretty restrained Hans Zimmer score, leading to a pivotal final race at the Japanese Grand Prix under very rainy conditions. This climactic race is brilliant for rising above a mere race between two men, and manages to have its own twists and turns, completely changing the dynamic of the event. It ultimately ends on a profound note for both men who leave changed, their rivalry is washed away by the rains revealing the deep respect and understanding of two professionals bonded by the rush of F1 racing.