It’s rare to see a film about rivalry that doesn’t end in murder. Ron Howard’s Rush tells the story of real-life Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who openly called each other assholes but whose competition led both drivers to better themselves in the long run. Ron Howard, never one for subtlety, outlines this motif by the end of the movie just in case you didn’t pick up on it.
But is there any genre more blunt than the sports genre? The framework of direct physical competition usually gives its heroes an exciting visual representation of their individual development. Ron Howard tends to fare better when his material is focused on direct conflict (see: Apollo 13, or to a different extent Frost/Nixon) and Peter Morgan’s screenplay abides, offering a series of dramatic vehicle races and a story that neatly interprets all the parallels and perpendiculars between Hunt’s and Lauda’s personal lives as a different kind of race altogether.
Rush weaves between the brash, sexual dynamo Hunt and the intense, antisocial Lauda as they make their way from similar beginnings – respectable families who frown on their obsessions – to an early rookie rivalry, and later to a diehard grudge match as professional racers. Hemsworth strikes a dashing but self-destructive figure in Hunt, whose devil may care attitude is both his greatest asset and his ultimate downfall. Brühl brings a no-nonsense intensity to Lauda that makes him both commendable and a total bummer at parties.
Hunt and Lauda each find love, risk losing it, and encounter difficulties on their path to stardom based on their wildly disparate personal traits. Along the way an uneasy respect is formed, casual conversations are begun before they deteriorate into observant taunts on both sides, and a fantasy world in which Hunt and Lauda are best friends forms in the back of one’s head. But their simultaneous attraction and repulsion to each other stems from their life’s work, and that work is based on pure competition. So they race, and race, and race again.
Ron Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle film the racing action with slick motion but a certain dreariness, which underscores the seriousness and danger of Formula One instead of aggrandizing the sport. Dangerous driving is always displayed, and the action on the track is always clear when it needs to be. When it doesn’t, Rush is usually a harried montage of one win after another for Lauda or, when the story demands it, Hunt. When Peter Morgan’s screenplay decides to linger long enough for a set piece, it’s always worthwhile. When he decides to skim over something it feels like it was probably just a tiny aspect of the big picture, which Rush usually keeps in proper perspective.
Tragedy strikes one of the racers, as indeed it did in real life, forcing each competitor to reevaluate their relationship to one another, and by extension the way they live their lives. Hemsworth and Brühl make the transition smoothly and believably, making the ultimate showdown – since of course there has to be one – a different kind of beast than the usual climactic brouhaha. Rush ends not with a violent last minute surge to see who can squeak past the finish line first… the real test is whether the racers can bring themselves to live the way they want to live, be it in the absolute thrall of immediate danger or in relative comfort, knowing that they value something more than just defeating their rival.
Whether you side with Hunt or Lauda when they each decide what is best in life – their values are simplistic polar opposites – you’re right, and Rush sides with you. Conclusions don’t get much more satisfying than that, especially when both heroes have to work so hard to reach their respective finish lines. But of course Drama doesn’t get much blunter than that, and while normally that would be a problem, Rush has a refreshingly positive approach to the sports genre, celebrating the best parts of competition and refusing to wallow in the worst. That makes it a movie of simple, satisfying pleasures, and an excellent showpiece for actors Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in particular.