Even more than winners and losers, championship runs and crushing defeats, sports are defined by rivalries. In Rush, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, Hereafter, The Queen) turn their attention to Formula One and the mid-1970s rivalry between two upstarts whose competition eventually would make them both world champions.
The stark contrast in the two characters and the drama of the season screams Hollywood sports film, and I’m a little surprised it has taken this long for their story to find its way to the big screen. Without the backing of his family Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) bought his way into Formula One with a prickly personality and an unparalleled knowledge of getting the best out of his car. Lauda’s main competition came from the charming but flighty James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) who despite lacking Lauda’s single-mindedness made up for it in his own self-absorbed recklessness and resolve to prove he could beat anyone on a race track.
After spending time to set out the basic background of both characters, introduce their major love interests (Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde), and their rivalry which began in the lower ranking Formula Three circuit, the film races to get both men to the main stage where their competition would dominate as the major storyline of the 1976 Formula One season.
No one is every going to confuse Hemsworth with Laurence Olivier, but he’s well-cast in the role of the egotistical ladies man whose chances both on and off the track rub Lauda the wrong way. Brühl has the harder role in keeping the the more introverted Lauda from devolving into nothing more than the film’s villain. Rush works hard to balance the positives and negatives of both men leading into the on-course tragedy that cements their rivalry and gives added dramatic weight to the film’s final act and the season’s final race.
An in terms of the racing Howard and his team excel, especially capturing the wet conditions in both West Germany and the final race in Japan. Shifting back and forth through various perspectives, including at times a limited first-person view of what the drivers were seeing in the rough conditions, Rush skillfully captures the speed and danger of Formula One racing.
Even though the film is based on real events I don’t want to give too much away. That said, I also have to praise Howard and Brühl for Lauda’s arc during the final third of the film (which even effects his rival). At times these scenes are difficult to watch but they also underline the fierceness of the pair’s rivalry and the chances each was will to take to be called world champion.
In terms of sports cliches Rush ends unexpectedly given the series of real events the movie is based on. To help compensate, Howard and his team rather unsubtly try their best to amp up the tension of final race which feels a bit forced (especially at the end with the confusion of the outcome). I would also have like to see more of Lara as Lauda’s wife, particularly after the dark turn the film takes in its final 40 minutes. These, however, are minor complaints as Howard and company produce yet another well-made film (even if it has far less Canadian rock than its name suggests).