“Rush,” the latest period biopic from the masterful Ron Howard, chronicles two Formula One racers, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), as they compete for the 1976 World Championship. Like all Howard films, “Rush” is sleek and polished, but what elevates it above his other works, say “Frost/Nixon” or “Apollo 13,” is the humanity present in the film. Like many great movies, “Rush” is formulaic, but it’s so damn compelling and fun you don’t care. You’re already strapped in and going 170.
The film starts six years before the championship at a Formula Three race, where the rivals meet for the first time. Lauda has been at the track all day, studying and preparing. Hunt walks into the lot with a blonde he just met. He pukes from nerves, takes a sip of champagne, hits a joint, and gets in his car. Once the race starts, both drivers shoot ahead of the group, battling for the lead spot. The technical and calculating Lauda holds the lead for most of the race, blocking each of Hunt’s attempted passes, until Hunt, passionate and hungry, pushes his way in and nearly gets them both killed. He doesn’t, however, and instead he wins the race, enraging Lauda and starting their bitter rivalry.
The battle between Hunt and Lauda isn’t just about race cars; it’s a battle of personal philosophies. Lauda, the descendant of strict Austrian businessmen, is all logic. He doesn’t love the sport; he sees it as his only true talent. Even as he defiantly announces his occupation to disapproving family members, one gets the sense that part of Lauda wishes he was good at business instead. Hunt couldn’t be more different. He’s in it for the thrill, the revelry, the proximity to a grizzly public death. The only thing the two have in common is a fierce competitiveness. Hunt lives every day like his last. He even says so explicitly at least three times during the film.
Which brings me to the film’s one weakness: all the conflict is laid bare with neither subtext nor nuance. Characters just tell the audience their motivations, sometimes even through voiceovers. Like all Peter Morgan’s screenplays, that of “Rush” is all absolutes. Lauda is Superego, Hunt is Id, and eventually the juxtapositions get excessive. This is, however, a minor criticism. “Rush” was never trying to be subtle, and it’s too well crafted for any egregious missteps.
The performances are solid throughout. While Hemsworth was good in “Thor” (especially in the comedic scenes), “Rush” gives him a little more to work with, and he delivers. Then again, playing a handsome superstar that bangs chicks was probably an easy role for him to slip into. The breakout star of the film, however, is Brühl. Best known to American audiences as the Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller in “Inglourious Basterds,” Brühl was overdue for another good role and, finally given one, knocks it out of the park. With a lesser actor, Lauda would have just been a casual jerk, easy to hate compared to the fun-loving and likable Hunt. The marketing materials promote Hemsworth as the lead, and I went in expecting him to be the star. But Lauda isn’t a villain in “Rush”; he’s the second protagonist. By the end, you want them both to win.
As frustrating as it is having all the year’s good movies released in a three-month span, “Rush” has me excited for the upcoming Oscar season. It’s a strong first offer and if other Awards nominations are as good as this, it’s going to be a competitive year.