If you’re a fan of racing or better yet Formula 1, I suspect Rush will top your list of best films of the year. Hell, it might even turn into one of your favorite films of all time.
For laypeople who don’t become visibly sexually aroused at the sight of a top-tier Formula 1 engine, whatever that might be, it will be a wholly satisfying yet far from perfect racing bio from the kings of biographical features, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan.
Howard and Morgan only previously worked together on the excellent Frost/Nixon, but they have an impressive list of biographical films on each of their resumes, Howard with A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Apollo 13 and Morgan with The Queen, The Deal, The Last King of Scotland and The Damned United.
This time, the duo examine the infamous rivalry between two legendary Formula 1 drivers, the womanizing, unpredictable bad boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the brutally honest, no-nonsense, too anal even for an Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).
After a brief introduction into the beginning of their love-hate (Mostly hate) relationship while racing in the Formula 3 in the early 70s, the rest of the running time focuses entirely on the 1976 Formula 1 racing season when the two drivers at the top of their game literally risked life and limb (And in one of their case, facial skin) in order to become the world champion and get their paws on that glorified oversized golden champagne glass.
James Hunt is obviously the character that’s peddled to the masses. Looking at the posters and trailers of Rush, one can’t be blamed for getting the impression that they’ll be in for a biography of Hunt, with Lauda as a small side character.
After all, Chris "Thor" Hemsworth and his cover of Men’s Health-worthy bod is obviously the main box-office draw here. Ironically, Hunt’s side of the story is the least interesting part of Rush. It follows a paint-by-numbers biography structure of "The playboy who had everything and lost it because he let his over-inflated ego take over".
His didactic voice-overs and monologues about how much the ladies love a man who lives on the edge and the importance of having a little bit of fun in life before kicking the bucket belong in the laptop of a first or second time screenwriter, not a seasoned storyteller like Peter Morgan.
The sloppy execution by Ron Howard, with the typical beat-by-beat downfall of the character, complete with the obligatory shaky Dutch angles in order to express his increasing problems with alcoholism, does not help matters.
On the other hand, Niki Lauda’s side of the story, which takes up as much screen time if not more, regardless of what the film’s marketing will attempt to have you believe, is fascinating to behold.
In Lauda, we get a man with an unhealthy obsession who’s also curiously honest with himself and with others. He’s insufferable with his cockiness, never passing up a chance to let any driver know how much better he is compared to him.
Yet at the same time he’s deftly in touch with his own limitations and publicly admits to them without a second’s thought. The film doesn’t even reference this, but I’d be curious to find out if the real-life Lauda was ever tested for Asberger’s.
Daniel Bruhl from Goodbye Lenin and Inglorious Basterds is one of our generation’s most talented actors and he manages to construct a fairly tortured character behind the cocksure façade. We expect the third act to visualize the climactic championship showdown between Hunt and Lauda but an unexpected decision made by Lauda gives his character a lot more depth than we anticipated, while Hunt keeps stuck in reckless hunk mode.
The racing scenes are predictably breathtaking, considering Howard’s pedigree in delivering full-blooded mainstream entertainment. They seem to rely a bit too heavily on CGI or at least VFX compositing work. If you’d like to see a Formula 1 film with real footage of fast driving and insanely dangerous car crashes, check out John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix.
Rush could have been great if it focused more on Lauda and relegated Hunt to a background character. Still, as it is, I’m confident that it will more than please hard-core racing fans.