With: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde
Runtime: 122 minutes
HOT on the tyre tracks of Senna in proving that exciting cinema can be made from a sport that makes bowls look exhilarating comes Rush, Ron Howard's drama about the rivalry between Formula One world champions James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
Being the tale of two individuals going mano-a-mano, you will not be surprised to learn that the screenplay comes from Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon. While Morgan's way with a two-hander provides the muscle of the drama, it is Howard's action scenes that supply the adrenalin. Together with a lusty performance from Chris Hemsworth as the British champ and a picture-stealing one by Daniel Bruhl as his Austrian counterpart, the whole adds up to a tear-along two hours.
Howard's picture zeroes in on 1976, a year that was fateful for both men. The 1970s setting is as vital to the drama as the presence of Morgan on writing duties. As a caption at the start informs the audience, there were, on average, two fatalities a year in the sport during this era. Motor racing had not yet gone the road of stringent safety checks, clean corporatism, and logos a go-go (had the film been set in the modern era the title would not have been Rush but the name of an accountancy firm or some other sponsor). In 1976 it was still a kamikaze-tinged endeavour in which young men drove what one character calls "bombs on wheels".
Hunt is initially drawn as the archetypal playboy from tabloid legend. We see him padding around behind the scenes at a racetrack, all blonde surfer locks and flip flops. Next, Hunt is in a hospital A&E department looking for some nursing care after a scrape. We duly see why he used to wear a badge on his overalls with the legend, "Sex, the breakfast of champions". The scene is so outrageously and intentionally cheesy they might as well have added Benny Hill music. With that aspect of his character safely out of the way, Howard can move on to the far more intriguing territory of the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda.
Rush takes a black and white view of the relationship between the two men, painting them as strangers to each other and opposites in every way. In reality, they were flatmates during their early years in the sport. It is an accurate enough picture, though. Hunt approached the sport like the archetypal gentleman amateur, even if his will to win and his skills were those of the focused professional. Lauda, meanwhile, tempered his passion with scientific coolness, always looking for the margin that could make the difference between winning and losing. They were the two faces of the sport, then and now, with Lauda far ahead of his time.
Hemsworth, being an Aussie, was in some ways a daring choice to play the ex-public schoolboy. While his accent does stray into Prince Charles territory at times, he nails the spirit of Hunt at that particular point in his life. Genial, daring, raucous, with just a hint of the more complex soul lurking underneath, the Thor star convinces as Hunt in his prime. Bruhl, as Lauda, goes further, taking the picture with him in the process. His Lauda is clinical, businesslike, arrogant, but he is also smart and possessed of a brilliantly deadpan wit. The biggest laughs in the picture come not from Hunt's laddishness but Lauda's biting sense of humour.
So caught up are Morgan and Howard with the two men that there is not a lot of room for women other than as wives and cheerleaders.
There is a nicely judged scene, however, of Hunt and his wife (played by Olivia Wilde) having a crisis dinner to discuss their marriage. It is a hint of the other side of Hunt, the part that would surface once the glory days of 1976 were over.
Howard can do no more than hint because there is too much else to be getting on with, not least the winning of a world championship. Having directed Cinderella Man, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind, Howard could be relied upon to be at home with the human drama in the Hunt-Lauda story. What is astonishing here is how much sheer welly he gives the action. With the Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) he delivers a helter-skelter, heart-thumping ride. This is motor sport not as lumps of metal going round and round the same circuit, but as chariot racing, as Ben-Hur with another form of horsepower.
The crash that was to define the year and help to change the sport is handled sensitively, but in a way that still makes one marvel, all these years on, that any mortal could have survived it.
Howard ends as he began, on a human note. As Rush makes clear, Formula One in what many still consider its heyday was as much about mind as metal. It had its heroes, flawed ones at that, but they were big enough to fill a cinema screen. One wonders how many of today's drivers could do the same.