Two Drivers, Two Philosophies, One Crash Course
Formula One Racing is considered a niche sport in the United States but never has it felt so alive, mainstream, and universal than in Rush. This specifically intriguing world (mostly experienced in Europe) is brought to visual and visceral life by director Ron Howard who needs his credit to appear on this film to assure his audience that this indeed is a Ron Howard picture. Immersive, kinetic, and loud, this is a bold new direction for the often-glazed sentimentalism that has enveloped Howard’s repertoire of comedies, dramas, and sports narratives of recent memory. From its opening scene, Rush straps you inside of its small driver’s seat and takes you on a swift, engine-growling journey, never lagging in pace, exceeding limits of speed and sound.
The men responsible for setting this sometimes-uncontrollable pace are James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), two titans of auto racing with two very different personalities that eventually lead to a bitter but eventually respectful rivalry. Formula One, unlike NASCAR, distinguishes itself by its hairpin turns and narrow speedways, tracks slippery and quick in shaky, squiggled round form. Drivers slip into their cars, or coffins as many believe, just inches of metal separating their bodies from the 200 mph firing engines that rumble beneath them. With every turn, a swipe at death that makes some drivers never feel more alive.
At least that’s how James Hunt sees it, the British, blonde-locked lothario of Formula One in the 1970s. The quintessential carefree personality, Hunt typified the height of the sport’s playboy image, enjoying the immediate rewards of winning races more than the lifelong pursuit of becoming an icon (His racing jacket had “Sex, the Breakfast of Champions” emblazoned on the front). Lauda meanwhile, a calculating Austrian with the face of a rat, bought his way onto the racing scene, quickly revolutionizing his team’s car with his mathematical, engineering approach, later singing on to join with Ferrari. The two began on the track in Formula 3, establishing their divergent philosophies of driving and celebrating that would soon enough carry them to the height of tabloids and racing prominence during the film’s main focus, the 1976 season. Lauda’s tactical, small dark-haired frame was the yin to Hunt’s big chested, womanizer yang.
In order to delve into this character study, Howard realizes the need to establish the atmosphere of a sport so radically and inherently dangerous. Weaving through a grainy, almost permanently dusty filter, Howard gets intimate with his speeding missiles of metal, providing first person perspectives as drivers barrel through turns to a subtly pumping Hans Zimmer score. At one point, Hunt visualizes an upcoming track, shifting phantom gears, pressing imaginary petals as he storms through the blurry course. The noise is the other factor in this experience, and Howard seems to take his volume cues from Niki Lauda’s last name, enhancing engine roars and fire bursts that his subjects proudly emit.
If these driver’s actual techniques and jargon are not something readily apparent in this film, it is made up for in this immersive quality. Howard it appears would rather not get bogged down in the logistics more than the emotions, and for this kind of film, it’s the right choice. Besides paying homage to this daredevil type of driving and rivalry, Rush also seems to be an ode to subverting the stereotype that racecar drivers are not in fact athletes, the kind that sack quarterbacks or swim laps. Witnessing the durability needed to stay strapped next to 400 degrees of heat, feeling the seat’s rumble, needing precision eyesight through a fogged helmet, Howard more than tempts us to reconsider. Packed inside a speeding metal box and gripping a vibrating wheel is a different kind of athleticism he suggests, to say the least.
But this addicting physical high must come down at times, and to Howard’s credit, he doesn’t let it consume a narrative built on speeding towards the checkered flag. Hunt settles down to marry Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), a doomed relationship based on a flimsy heated attraction, spiraling into oblivion with the help of drugs and booze. There are darker details to be exposed but that would have provided another speed bump to the film’s fluidity. Lauda has more success with his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), a compassionate and devoted partner who becomes at once a reliable support and an Achille’s heel, now a potential sacrificial piece to his unpredictable career. “Happiness is an enemy because you have something to lose,” he says on their honeymoon. It’s a statement indicating the extremes of his legacy burnishing mentality, one that must feel like an underdog even as the favorite.
The season rolls into its latter stages, and if you don’t know about Lauda’s near-fatal crash in Germany, Rush provides both the visceral height of the impact and the devastating consequences that quickly consume Lauda’s facial features and rearrange the Formula One standings. The race took place on a rain saturated Nurembring track and the decision to ride came from a driver’s vote led by Hunt, wary of his position for the championship, defiant against Lauda’s logistical worries. It is bizarre to see the negligence from Formula One bureaucrats, ostensibly caring little about potentially devastating lawsuits to follow.
Howard, teaming again with writer Peter Morgan, has done character studies before with Frost/Nixon, and Morgan has specialized in presenting some of Britain’s most prolific figures as noted in The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. But this film feels less lethargic than their biopics of the past and more vibrant and punchy than Howard’s sporting venture in Cinderella Man. This is miles away from his pathetic dramedy The Dilemma. At one point near the end of Rush, Lauda and Hunt have a final chat and agree that their constant pushing , often bitter rivalry elevated each other to higher levels. You hope rich source material like this does the same for Howard.
It also doesn’t hurt to have two fine emerging actors jockeying for position in the same film. Hemsworth, whose claim to fame comes in his demi-god status in his portrayal of “Thor,” slips effortlessly into Hunt’s charismatic flavor. Meanwhile Bruhl, whose most recognizable role for Americans came in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, matches Hemsworth with a frustrated confidence, electrifying in his diligent persona.
How refreshing to see a film saturated with life and color and energy and equal amounts of star power. If Rush doesn’t cover the entirety of this dynamic pair, it at least corrals its most essential elements: the tire shredding, crowd cheering, heart-bursting flag waves of this lifestyle. In one of its most powerful scenes, Hunt seduces a flight attendant and they begin stripping in the bathroom. In the middle of this act, Hunt stares into the mirror with an unmatched intensity (signifying a number of things) that the camera grasps and subsequently throws right into the tailpipe of his raging car. It’s an unparalleled change of shots. It’s what movies are all about.