“Rush”, which follows the real-life rivalry of Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during their rise to stardom in the mid-‘70s, is almost the perfect balance between a big budget racing movie and observant, character-driven indie picture. While it might not reinvent the wheel, so to speak, this exceptionally cast, beautifully lensed film, which is director Ron Howard’s best work since 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind” (if not since 1995’s “Apollo 13”), is a solid dramatic historical piece that spends more time delving into its characters than it does showboating on the asphalt. As an observation of two men who are outwardly opposite from one another (Hunt, an Adonis-like free spirit and Lauda, a squirrelly looking pragmatist who assesses risk at every turn) but who are equally strong-willed, “Rush” rarely stumbles, and, in its deepest moments, is completely fascinating; Howard paints a picture at once romantic and brutally honest. And yes, the racing sequences are raw and intense; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Trance”) delivers a rare visceral quality that many contemporary “racing epics” lose in grandiose CGI.
And like most great movies, “Rush” comes from a terrific script. Abstaining from testosterone-heavy clichés almost entirely, Peter Morgan (Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”) tells a gripping sports/rivalry story without the meat-headed attitude, developing his characters with depth, style and realism. Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) plays Hunt, the self-indulgent but affable British playboy who is up-and-coming on the Formula Three circuit in the early 1970’s. In the film, Hunt is portrayed as equal parts ambitious and cocky, passionate and reckless. He’s a media magnet, and he soaks it up. We get acquainted with him (and his predilections) through a number of booze-addled one-night stands; at the beginning of the film, he seduces a nurse at the hospital (Natalie Dormer, “The Counselor”) who’s tending to a fresh wound that Hunt has sustained from an altercation over another driver’s wife.
One day before an F3 race, Hunt meets Lauda, the reclusive Austrian played by Daniel Brühl (“The Fifth Estate”) who’s destined to become Hunt’s nemesis, though by film’s end would more accurately be described as his driving force (“A wise man learns more from his enemies than a fool from his friends,” Lauda later imparts upon him). With a personality diametrically opposed to Hunt’s, Lauda is a calculated, analytical savant who’s as adept at engineering as he is at driving. He’s introverted and doesn’t possess even the most fundamental social skills, contrary to Hunt’s complete lack of inhibition. It’s ironic that Lauda would be the one to sustain life-threatening injuries on a notoriously dangerous track only months before the 1976 Championship race in Japan, a tragedy that reveals a mutual respect between the two.
Hemsworth and Brühl own these roles, particularly Brühl who transforms into a spitting image of Lauda. Both actors convey the vulnerability that the two men, each in very different ways, masked for the public. While these characters are thoroughly developed as individuals, portrayed almost like alter-egos over the six years in which the film takes place, some of their other relationships feel only partially explored; if “Rush” has a deficiency anywhere, it’s in these sparse interactions, particularly in Hunt’s brief marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, “Drinking Buddies”), who eventually leaves him for actor Richard Burton (Hunt has a rendezvous with a stewardess in an airplane bathroom before the ink on the divorce papers has dried). As usual, Wilde is fantastic, but her fleeting presence makes that portion feel slightly underdeveloped. Alexandra Maria Lara (“Imagine”) is also excellent as Lauda’s enigmatic wife Marlene, though it feels like the film doesn’t fully capture the extent of her influence on Niki.
That said, “Rush” is easily in my Top 10 films so far this year. Engaging from beginning to end, it’s a slick if uneven story about envy, ego and co-dependence, both a gripping drama and an intense racing movie.