Movies centered on sports – ostensibly based on true stories – are a dime a dozen this time of year. They’re often family friendly fluff*, occasionally with pretenses of being Oscar bait, and most of the time completely interchangeable. There are a few standouts that have been strong enough to leave an impact, but by and large they tend to be content wallowing in forced sentimentality, ham-handed messages, overt heroism and villainy of people who were likely much more complex than that, and a general sense of mediocrity.
Ron Howard’s Rush (thankfully) rises above most of those trappings.
The film, purportedly based on a true story, hinges on the rivalry of two Formula One racers during, and in the years leading up to, the 1976 racing season. The racers are James Hunt – a handsome, thrill-seeking playboy, and Niki Lauda – a cold, seemingly unfeeling man who is willing to forsake happiness for being respected. The two of them meet for the first time in the Formula Three circuit (as someone who doesn’t know a thing about Formula racing, it seemed a bit like the equivalent of Double-A baseball), and they instantly clash. Despite the similarities of each being from wealthy European families and spurning their inherited legacies in order to make new names for themselves in this dangerous sport, the two men mix like vinegar and baking soda. As they make their way into the F1 circuit, their rivalry catalyzes; each man trying to best the other to achieve the title of world champion.
As I mentioned, I neither know nor care anything about Formula One racing (or car racing of any kind for that matter). While I can understand the at least slightly insane appeal that comes with strapping yourself into a metal box and careening around a track at speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour, the excitement that comes from watching it is decidedly less pronounced for me. Where Ron Howard succeeds in this film is that you’re not viewing from the perspective of a spectator; through aggressive shots and smart editing, you’re inside the “coffin on top of a bomb” along with Hunt and Lauda. In fact, this quality makes the film a bit disorienting at first. During the first race I had to reset my expectations a bit because I was not being given the objective view of the race that most similar films would opt to show. Ron Howard isn’t concerned with an objective view of the race, he’s interested in the men inside only two of those cars. And it’s in the creation (or re-creation) of these two men that the film shines.
Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl turn in remarkable performances of two men who are unlovely at their most base levels. As James Hunt, Hemsworth goes all out in portraying a man who is essentially a junkie for life. He takes and risks and consumes everything he gets his hands on, seeking the opportunity to stare death in the face and feel more alive in the process, but like a junkie, it’s all fleeting. Everything in his life is heightened to the point where life’s simple beauties carry no weight, yet in outward appearance Hunt is endlessly charming. He smiles and banters with the press even amid personal crisis, not to mention he’s being portrayed by a man who was literally cast as a god in one of the most successful movies ever made. That said, the outward appearance doesn’t come across as a façade meant to mask a rotten core, instead feeling like a strangely genuine contradiction to the man who vomits before races and nervously plays with a lighter underneath the table at a press conference.
Because of the fact that Hunt, despite his flaws, is charming and attractive, and the fact that audiences are more familiar with Chris Hemsworth as an actor, it would have been really easy for him to slide into the role of the film’s de facto hero. After all, he’s playing against a German actor with very limited Hollywood exposure, made up to look like a rodent, and portraying a character who is the very definition of unlikeable. Yet, Daniel Brühl is so good in the role, and brings so much humanity to this cold character, that you end up legitimately caring about this guy too. Unlike Hunt who throws himself recklessly at everything, Lauda is calculating to the point of being alien to most of his colleagues, yet much like Hunt’s recklessness, it’s this cold calculation that is at the heart of Lauda’s skill as a racer. He rebuilds his sponsor’s car from the ground up and is able to predict the speed improvement down to the second. At one point in the film, he reports Hunt’s car as being wider than regulation by five-eights of an inch – a move which Hunt takes as a petty attempt to rob him of a win, and while that is likely a factor, I also imagine that to Lauda that five-eights of an inch matters a great deal. Still, in his own way, Lauda’s passion for racing is just as sincere as Hunt’s. While Hunt treats the sport as an art, something that is felt more than understood, it would be easy to say that Lauda reduced it to a science. To say that, though, would be wholly inaccurate, because while it’s definitely more science than art to Lauda, there was no reduction in the process.
Rush is very much a character study, and the fact that it portrays these characters in honest, nuanced ways is the crucial element that gives this movie its pulse. There’s not a hero or a villain here, there’s merely two deeply flawed men who are moved by passion to try to achieve greatness, and in that there’s something with which we can relate in both characters. This is film for people who realize that a sports competition is not a matter of “good guys vs. bad guys” but a matter of individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and foibles. Racing is as much a part of this film as it was a part of the lives of these men, but the film smartly never makes the sport itself the goal. Because of this, Howard and company are able to craft a very well told story set in the world of Formula One racing, instead of telling a story about F1 racing and trying to retrofit interesting character drama onto the top of it. When the film gets to the big high-stakes races at the end of the story, it’s extremely compelling not just because the race itself is exciting (it is), but because you have an vested interest in BOTH of the rival racers. By resisting the typical method of villainizing one of the characters, the film is infinitely more rich.
Rush is a very good movie through-and-through. In fact, my biggest complaint comes not from anything in the actual film, but rather the marketing for it. There’s an element emphasized in the trailers that, while not a small event in the movie, is given a misleading amount of importance in the trailers. Now I understand that trailers giving away story beats better left unspoiled and being intentionally misleading is nothing new, but in this case, the marketing department was selling a film that was different from the actual feature, and the movie they were selling is vastly worse than the movie I saw in the theater. In this case, they gave away something that undermines part of the structure of the film and undersold the film in the process. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you haven’t seen the trailers for this one yet (and if you’re not already familiar with the true story) I’d try to avoid them.
If you can manage that (and even if you can’t), Rush is a film that’s well worth seeing. It’s a smart, humane, and gripping story set in the world of sports that adamantly refuses to play on the same pandering, mediocre level most of its contemporaries do. It’s a story about the passion and madness that drives two racers, not a story of race cars who are driven by shallow cartoons.
*that’s not to say being family friendly and being fluff isn’t mutually exclusive, but they do often coincide.