Rush is arguably 2013’s first genuinely great film. A gorgeously-mounted and compelling drama, it represents another winner from director Ron Howard, who’s back in fine form here after 2011’s The Dilemma. Howard’s most distinguished movies are based on true stories, withApollo 13 and Frost/Nixon showcasing the filmmaker’s significant talents in terms of technical proficiency, bravura visuals and taut storytelling, and Rush further exemplifies this. Reuniting with Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan, the picture turns its attention to the sport of Formula One racing in the 1970s, yet its appeal is not restricted to sports fans. Indeed, while fervent car fanatics and Formula One devotees will love the behind-the-scenes examination of this dangerous sport, newcomers are not left out in the cold. On the contrary, anyone who simply appreciates good filmmaking will enjoy Rush, as it offers far more than just racing action.
Set predominantly during the 1976 Formula One season, Rush concentrates on the rivalry between British racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The pair are complete polar opposites – Hunt is a hedonistic playboy who indulges in women and booze, while Lauda is a consummate professional who’s 100% focused on the track, the epitome of all work and no play. As they enter the Formula One season of 1976, a heated contest breaks out between Hunt and Lauda, with Niki taking the lead early into the competition. Following a horrifying crash, Lauda is hospitalised with severe burns and injuries, allowing Hunt to gain some ground. But Lauda is unwilling to let his rival win the title so easily, charging through his rehabilitation and risking his wellbeing to return to the racetrack before the end of the season.
A less skilful motion picture would mould the story into a brainless racing fiesta, using Hunt as a hero and Lauda as a one-dimensional villain. But Morgan’s screenplay is balanced, functioning as a character study of both men, observing their tempestuous relationship as they hesitantly develop a mutual, unspoken respect for one another. As a matter of fact, neither man is painted as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guy – both have appealing characteristics, but both have flaws that make them hard to like at times. It’s a unique angle, and it luckily translates to captivating cinema in the hands of Howard and Morgan. You may find yourself rooting for one or the other, but you may also wind up rooting for both at the same time, leading to a nail-biting few minutes at the end when it’s unclear if Hunt is the new World Champion, or if Lauda will retain his title. Naturally, Morgan does alter or omit certain facets of the historical record for dramatic reasons (Lauda and Hunt were actually friends off the track in real life), but his script works, and that’s what matters since this is a dramatisation rather than a documentary. If there’s anything to criticise, it’s that a few aspects of the narrative feel underdone – the first race of the 1976 Formula One season is summed up with a brief title card that feels jarring, and Hunt’s marriage isn’t given much attention.
Even Howard’s lesser movies are well-made, and the filmmaker’s talents are on full display here, with the director flawlessly realising Morgan’s superlative script. Howard is to be commended for his astonishing command of pacing and storytelling, as there’s nary a dull moment throughout the feature’s extensive two-hour running time. Rush is an energetic film, but this is not to say that Howard skims through character development – on the contrary, large portions of time are devoted to dialogue and drama, but the scenes benefit from fine craftsmanship right down the line. Rush also springs to life during the racing sequences. The races were gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Dredd), the editing is faultless, and the use of sound is fantastic, making for immersive, atmospheric viewing. Plus, Howard doesn’t baulk from showing the gruesome reality of Formula One racing, with Lauda’s crash shown in unsettling detail. The make-up effects are seamless, and the production design exquisitely evokes the ’70s without showing off.
Hemsworth is not an actor that one would expect to see in a role like this, as he’s untested as a true thespian. But Hemsworth nails it, espousing an impressively consistent accent and embodying the essence of James Hunt. Believable as a booze-guzzling ladies man, Hemsworth is ideal as the arrogant playboy, locating Hunt’s humanity and even displaying the racer’s emerging humility from time to time. Added to this, Hemsworth suitably resembles his real-life counterpart, which is underscored in a moving montage towards the film’s end containing genuine documentary footage of the deceased Hunt. Meanwhile, Brühl was given a difficult task in playing Lauda, yet the resulting performance is extraordinary. Niki is a cold, determined man with unlikeable tendencies, yet Brühl humanises him, letting us believe his motivations and giving us the chance to sympathise with him. Rush is predominantly the Hemsworth and Brühl show, yet Howard assembled a top-flight supporting cast too, including Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara as the wives of the two racers.
Despite its Oscar pedigree, Rush is a mainstream-friendly flick, as Howard’s touch is engaging and the enormously stimulating racing sequences will keep casual movie-goers interested. Howard also deserves kudos for making this an R-rated adult fare, peppering the movie with realistic language and effective portrayals of racetrack harm. Rush could’ve gone the PG-13 route for maximum box office, but Howard stuck to his guns, and the result is a motion picture that feels like the work of a genuine auteur. While the film may prove somewhat entertaining for teenagers, this is vehemently a movie for adults, who will appreciate the fine craftsmanship and the sense of cinematic maturity. And it’s great to see this type of adult moviemaking sneaking its way into multiplexes after many months of fun but often brainless blockbusters.