Rush dramatises the longstanding true life rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Brühl) that played out dramatically to an audience of millions during the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship. In fact, the fierce competition between the two dated back to their early days working up the ranks in lesser race classes and was both professional and deeply personal.
For many reasons director Howard and screenwriter Morgan have taken on an unenviable task in making an appealing film out of this material. Pure motorsport films (Le Mans, Days of Thunder, er … Driven) are, almost to a car, exceptionally boring. Formula 1 is an obsession for fans, but for non-fans it looks like a privileged boys’ club. Superficially, both Lauda and Hunt appear to fit that bill of playboy sportsmen - incredibly well off, and not hugely sympathetic. The story of the '76 season, at least Lauda and Hunt’s part of it, is very well known; where’s the suspense and drama in a story everyone knows?
Thankfully, Howard is on near-Apollo 13 form here, again taking a story with key action and story beats which a large proportion of the audience knows, and fashioning it into a hi-octane piece of glossy entertainment. His greatest ally in this task is Morgan’s exceptionally good script. Morgan is an expert in crafting a palatable narrative out of unruly reality. By focussing on the rivalry between the two men as the core story, Morgan has come up with something that is a little reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s short novel The Duel (the basis of Ridley Scott’s debut film, The Duellists) in which two dramatically different characters unite periodically in a series of deadly clashes motivated to best the other by a perceived slight neither can actually remember.
Hunt comes from a British sporting generation that is long gone, where icons such as George Best would live the lifestyle of rock stars. The driver’s life was a whirlwind of parties, groupies and high living. The real Hunt had film-star looks and a cut glass British accent, and while the casting of Australian actor Hemsworth may initially raise eyebrows, the part fits him like a perfectly tailored pair of driving gloves. So effortlessly does he embody Hunt’s easy public charm that the depth of his performance could be overlooked. Hemsworth looks like he’s just stepped off the set of Thor, keeping the hair and accent. However, it’s perfectly in keeping with playing a guy who can fall out of bed looking like he’s about to do a Calvin Klein commercial (or whatever the equivalent was in 1976 - Brüt aftershave, perhaps?)
Hunt and Lauda conform to lazy national stereotypes in a way that were this a fiction would be outrageous. However, there is much more than meets the eye; Hunt’s bravado hides a dangerous fatalism that lays waste to his personal relationships. Lauda has no time for Hunt’s swagger and champagne lifestyle as despite being heir to a banking fortune, he has been cut off due to his pursuit of an unsuitable racing career. Lauda is also in great debt after pragmatically taking out a huge loan to "buy" his place on a racing team. The rivalry is set up and explored in the first half of the film, which then leads to the 1976 championship which has more plot twists than the Nürburgring racetrack.
If Hunt was the epitome of the playboy racer, Lauda was his opposite: a cool, unsentimental, apparently humourless Austrian. Lauda is not into racing for the thrill; he’s in it as a career and calmly assesses races, cars and people in terms of mathematical probabilities. A less well-known actor than Hemsworth (although many will have seen him in Inglourious Basterds) Brühl looks remarkably like Lauda, and talks in his distinctive clipped Austrian accent. He has a more difficult job in gaining the sympathies and interest of the audience than Hemsworth, but the actor does a fine job of slowly revealing his character's humanity and a wickedly dry sense of humour. Morgan writes him a few superb scenes to do this, none more so than a great sequence when circumstances strand him in the Italian countryside with a glamorous socialite whose car has broken down. In classic It Happened One Night fashion she shows a little leg to stop a passing car. She has no idea who Lauda is, but the two excited young Italian men who have stopped show no interest in her feminine charms and fall over themselves insisting Lauda drives their car. He does so in such a calm, controlled and safe fashion that she refuses to believe he’s a racing driver. To the delight of the fans in the backseat this goads him into a demonstration of exceptional driving skills.
This is essentially a European film produced by a British company (Working Title), and Howard is working with a significantly lower budget than he normally would. But you would not know it. Shot by Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier’s favourite DP, Anthony Dodd Mantle, the film looks absolutely spectacular, and the period recreation is superb. Howard and Mantle choose to film the race sequences from the drivers’ points of view, including the blur induced by mechanical vibration, sheer speed, and occasionally rain. Apart from (possibly) a few overhead helicopter shots, nothing looks like stock or vintage footage. Brilliantly edited (by Howard’s trusted regulars Daniel P Hanley and Mike Hill) and propulsively scored by Hans Zimmer, the film is as pacey as its subjects. The surface glamour of race meets, parties, mansions, more parties and gleaming expensive automobiles sucks you in, but the compelling drama and action pin you to the seat with five Gs of centrifugal force. This is muscular, fuel-injected, populist entertainment at its best.
You might think you don’t want to see a film about two arseholes chasing each other at suicidal speeds, but you really do.
EXTRAS ★★★ The making-of featurette Race For The Chequered Flag (31:59); the featurette The Real Story of Rush (18:43); and 10 deleted scenes (10:56).• INTERVIEW: Ron Howard on Rush• INTERVIEW: Olivia Wilde on Rush• INTERVIEW: Alexandra Maria Lara on Rush• INTERVIEW: Daniel Bruhl on Rush