A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2013 

RUSH jjj
 

2013, R, 123  mins.

 

Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda  /  Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt  /  Olivia Wilde as Suzy Miller  /  Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda  /  Natalie Dormer as Gemma  /  Christian McKay as Alexander Hesketh  /  Tom Wlaschiha as Harald Ertl

Directed by Ron Howard  /  Written by Peter Morgan

Ron Howard’s RUSH may superficially have the façade of a sports biopic.  Yet, at its core it seems less interested in the sport of Formula One racing, per se, than it is with its more compelling and richly delineated chronicle of two men – both equally stubborn, arrogant, and endlessly skilled  – that find themselves becoming both better people and athletes through their heated and intense rivalry.  I have never found myself to be a racing fanatic in any way shape or form, so the prospect of sitting through a film that tackles the world of mid-1970’s F1 racing was not an enticing one.  Alas, the real coup that Howard scores here is how he presents a remarkably balanced and honest character portrait of two race car drivers that were both somewhat dislikeable and unsympathetic men during their formative years. 

As far as sports films go, RUSH certainly contains many of the obligatory accoutrements of the genre, right down to the big climatic championship where everything is on the proverbial line.  Yet, what makes the film so unique – from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, who previously worked with Howard on FROST/NIXON and also wrote the terribly underrated sports film THE DAMN UNITED – is how it never placates audience’s expectations to develop a rooting interest in a defined “hero” and a disdain for a “villain.”  Morgan is not interested at all in such cheap and manipulative theatrical tactics such as that.  Instead, he gives us a story of two men that manage to walk an ambiguous grey area between both extremes, which inherently provides for a vastly more enthralling story.   One of the men is a womanizer, chain-smoking, a hedonistic partier that throws caution – and good manners – to the curb, whereas the other is an anti-social curmudgeon that has an ego the size of a race track.  Ultimately, RUSH never begs for us to even like these people; its asks us to develop an understanding for how these two individuals brought out the respective best in one another, often with life and limb on the line. 

 

 

The men in question are Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), British Formula One racing drivers that were at the heart on a deeply intense personal and professionally rivalry in the sport during the 1976 F1 season (which is the primary focal point of Morgan’s screenplay).  In their respective pursuit of the checkered flag and ultimate victory on the circuit, these two men could not be anymore different.  Hunt, a Brit, is presented as a fast-talking, endlessly cocky, and flirtatious playboy (“Sex: The breakfast of champions,” he deadpans at one point) that openly mocked authority.  Lauda, from Austria, was the complete opposite: coldly detached, methodically analytical, and obsessively by-the-books.  They did share one thing in common: a deeply rooted passion for their sport and a desire to seek sponsorship for the ’76 F1 season and to be the best in their sport. 

Both men, to be fair, were wickedly self-indulgent and egomaniacal to the point of distancing themselves from any meaningful off-track relationships.  Hunt manages to marry a beautiful model, Suzy (a stunning Olivia Wilde), whereas Lauda hooks up with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), but both marriages hit major stumbling blocks when it becomes glaringly apparent that these men are obstinately focused more on their days at the racetrack.  After several races – during which time Lauda and Hunt exchange first place victories – Lauda endures a hellish crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix, which leaves him with burns to 80 per cent of his body and face.  Hunt feels somewhat responsible for the accident, seeing as Lauda pleaded with his fellow drivers to cancel the race due to poor conditions.  Nonetheless, as Hunt continues on the circuit and succeeds, the horrifically scarred – physically and emotionally – Lauda uses Hunt’s meteoric rise in the F1 ranks to fuel his yearning for a full rehabilitation…and to inevitably face off against Hunt in the F1 Championship.  

Strong performances are, no doubt, required to make this dual character piece work, and Howard has pitch-perfectly cast his film with the likes of Hemsworth and Bruhl.  Hemsworth can easily play badass pretty boys in his sleep, but as Hunt he also has to project not only an aura of rampant, undisciplined narcissism, but also a slowly emerging humility, emotional vulnerability, and respect for both himself and his chief opponent.  The real performance standout is the Spanish-born German Bruhl, whom was previously so devilishly good in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.  Bruhl has the most thorny task of any actor in the film: He has to project in Lauda a sternly shrewd figure of spiteful bluntness that is easy to hate while also making us empathize with him and his plight as his life hangs in the balance after his crash.  RUSH, as remarkable as it seems, manages to make us identify with both of these intrinsically flawed anti-heroes, neither of which could be easily labeled as affable protagonists.  

With a relatively scant $30 million budget, Howard manages to make a rather fine looking sports film on the cheap.  Utilizing the Oscar winning cinematographer Dod Mantle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), Howard finds both the grit and glamour of his 70’s period surroundings while immersing us in the some fairly exhilarating and wholeheartedly convincing racing sequences.  One of the inherent problems, though, with this and any racecar themed film is that the monotony and repetition of seeing cars zip around a track becomes a visual challenge.  Even though Howard does generate action sequences that are technically precise and dynamic, there still remains a nagging sensation that the individual races are somewhat muddled in terms of basic geography at times.  Without question, you do gain an immediate evocation of what it feels like for Bruhl and Hunt to be in the claustrophobic confines of their missiles on wheels, but there nonetheless remains very little that could be done to make each of the races feel more unique and novel from the other.  

RUSH is beset by other issues as well, like the fact that the typically astute and crafty writer that is Morgan truly marginalizes the female characters in the story (Wilde’s grieving wife is barely given adequate screen time for us to give a damn, and even the more fleshed out character portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara seems to be a victim of either misguided writing or editorial choices).  Yet, I still appreciated the avant-garde sports genre approach that Morgan and Howard use in RUSH, which helps elevate it above some of its more nagging foibles.  Ultimately, the sport of F1 racing is almost of cursory interest in the film; the real epicenter of fascination, at least for me, is in its perceptive and surprisingly democratic portrayal of two race car drivers that had to bitterly fight against their own egos and vanity to emerge with a healthier sense of who they are and what they actually mean to each other.  Lauda and Hunt were never bosom buddies, but they grew to mutually revere how they pushed each other to become better men in and out of competition.  It is this stimulating angle that chiefly separates RUSH far apart from other sports films.

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