The latest film from Ron Howard comes with a disclaimer from the director and writer: “This is not a Hollywood movie”. Formula 1 drama Rush certainly has the ingredients to be a standard genre film. Two racing drivers pit off against each other. Star director in Howard. The emerging superstardom of Chris Hemsworth. The special effects work of the high-speed races.
But Rush is anything but. In fact, somewhat similarly to the film’s narrative itself, this will be a dark horse for the annual award races.
Formula 1 has had one of the worst real-life-to-cinema runs of any sport (with the possible exception of lacrosse, but who wants to see a film about lacrosse, anyway?), with literally not a single narrative feature worth the film it’s shot on so far. But Rush’s writer, Frost/Nixon veteran Peter Morgan, perfectly maneuvers around the racing movie genre’s common pitfalls and crafts an engaging story, centered around 1976’s historic real-life rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two men similarly dissimilar as David Frost and Richard Nixon in his previous Oscar-nominated collaboration with director Howard.
Instead of a traditional pro- and antagonist setup, both Hunt and Lauda get their own opening voice-over monologues, emphasizing the dual protagonist voice that persists throughout the film. Still, the characters have decidedly differing story arcs.
Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are spot-on casting decisions, yet both actors reach beyond their superficial similarities to Hunt and Lauda, a testament to both them and Howard’s approach to the story. Hemsworth’s Hunt is a playboy, speedy but reckless driver, looking for the glory of fame and as fascinated by his own proximity to death as the women he encounters are attracted to it. In many respects he echoes his boastful Thor, but no more than Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones has the same type of self-aware gusto as his Han Solo possesses. Hunt becomes an intriguing and increasingly tragic figure, despite the success he enjoys, both through the script and Hemsworth’s performance.
However, if Hemsworth is good, then Brühl is absolutely sensational. The antithesis to Hunt, Lauda in Brühl’s hands has a serious, grounded, methodical and almost mathematical approach to everything he does, whether it’s racing or romance. Brühl excels in every scene, his ticks, his thick accent and his carefully studied physicality. His Lauda, on the surface a reproachful, cynical figure, becomes sympathetic and utterly charming through Brühl’s profound approach.
Olivia Wilde has one of her better performances as Hunt’s wife, Suzy, a small but important subplot in an otherwise simple narrative, while Alexandra Maria Lara has an equally good day as Lauda’s humanizing agent and eventual love, Marlene.
Then, of course, there is the racing bit of this racing film. Essentially a human drama, the story elevates the importance of the racing duels, making each the equivalent of a perfectly executed song number in a film musical. Each race has its own mini-story to tell aside from driving the story forward (no pun intended). The two climactic scenes, the first being Lauda’s horrific crash at Nurburgring, which leaves him permanently disfigured, and the later a rain-logged, very unconventional final race in Japan, especially highlight the bond between action and story.
Ron Howard is a peculiar director. He has been accused of being too superficial in films like The Da Vinci Code, but is at his best when focusing on the human element of his stories, like Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon or Cinderella Man. As stated above, the narrative is crafted around three-dimensional characters who happen to be racing drivers, but it’s amply complemented by some of the best racing action seen in recent years.
Blending sparse CGI with a load of practical effects and stunts, Anthony Dod Mantle‘s cinematography is masterful, creating a sensation of immense speed, danger and velocity in the seamlessly executed racing set-pieces. It reminds the viewer of a Formula 1 world filled with danger and the constant proximity to death, one that seems so distant in today’s super-technological, corporate embodiment of it. This F1 world is glamorous only on the surface, while the film’s success is in revealing the messy, brutal reality underneath it. Combined with the sound editing, music score and universally excellent supporting performances, Rush is a thrilling ride.
Final Verdict: Rush is an early awards contender, the first great Formula 1 feature film, and one of director Ron Howard’s best in recent years. Daniel Brühl steals the show as Niki Lauda, while Chris Hemsworth again proves his worth as the tragic character of James Hunt. A film for lovers of human drama as much as a film for petrolheads.