American sports have never lacked for legendary, if not overhyped, rivalries. Baseball can’t go a full season without hyping up the Yankees and Red Sox together, while basketball was revived by Magic vs Bird and golf tried to build up Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as equal rivals for years. However, European sports are good at rivalries too, or at least Formula One was in the early to mid 70s, as Ron Howard, Peter Morgan and Rush recreate in an unlikely but true story.
In the early 1970s, reckless ladies man James Hunt and uptight, calculating Niki Lauda rose through the ranks in Formula One racing. Their different approaches to life on and off the track made them instant rivals, despite their shared rebellion of their traditional backgrounds, and willingness to defy death in a sport that celebrates such high risk. But it is Lauda who becomes world champion first, which pushes Hunt to overthrow him in the 1976 season, although it appears unlikely to be enough – until fate intervened in a series of events that made them both legends.
Howard doesn’t come to mind as the first choice to helm a movie like Rush, despite how he started his directorial career with the drag racing movie Grand Theft Auto in 1977. Obviously Howard has come a long way since then, thanks to a string of crowd pleasing, award-baity successes. But every once in a while, Howard gets a little grittier than usual, as he did when he teamed with writer Peter Morgan in Frost/Nixon, and as they do again in Rush.
Despite Howard’s big budget credentials, Rush is a bit limited when it comes to the racing sequences, as almost half the action is shown on televisions. Budgetary concerns may have stopped Howard from being flashier, yet it still eventually works to the movie’s benefit. When compared with crash filled, demolition derbies like Days of Thunder and Driven, Rush ‘s relative restraint in making the races look real — or at least not as embellished with wrecks as expected — is admirable. It is also ironic, given how confronting the risk of deadly wrecks is such a big theme of the story.
Yet Howard and Morgan are more interested in the racers than the races themselves, and the similarities and differences between them. Hunt and Lauda are treated as the classic oil and water, loose and serious, similar but different rivals that most sports movies – and real sports rivalries – thrive on. This makes Rush tread on obviously clichéd ground, both with its sports formula and the running theme of men who are only alive when fighting death.
But despite meandering early on and using familiar territory, Rush finds its footing as the rivalry reaches higher and higher heights. In fact, if the movie wasn’t a true story, many might find some of the final twists of that 1976 season to be typical Hollywood hokum. Given that many Americans may not be familiar with Hunt and Lauda – even some of the die-hard sports fans – they may react with disbelief at some points either way. For one thing, racing in heavy rain certainly wasn’t as big a concern then as it would be today.
Nevertheless, most movies like Rush would coat this story with high sentiment, triumph of the human spirit moments, and ultimately having the two rivals ride into the sunset together. Howard himself flirted with such clichés in past biopics like Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. But with Morgan’s help and that of this true life story as a whole, Howard reigns in the sentiment for the most part and is all the better for it.
Hunt and Lauda may have never become friends, or found a way to resolve their differences about life and work. In fact, Rush doesn’t even have them interact for many lengthy scenes, at least until the very last one. But as rivals do – even the bitterest ones – Hunt and Lauda rise up in a way they never would have without the other. And yet when Lauda tells Hunt that he inspired him at a key moment, there’s no mistaking that it speaks more to his pride and need to beat him than anything more uplifting.
These are two men who couldn’t live by the status quo and had to cheat death, albeit in vastly different ways – and never the twain shall quite meet. While Lauda comes the closest to actually learning his limits from it all, it doesn’t necessarily discredit Hunt’s methods either – not all the time. Normally most movies would settle for a generic “these two opposites need each other and balance each other out” resolution – and even some true life films would just make it up if it didn’t exist. But Rush at least makes an effort to sidestep this cliché and whether Hunt or Lauda really had it right.
Just as Hunt and Lauda were a two-man show in the 1976 season, their actors make Rush a two-man show as well. Other than the two leads, the biggest name in the cast is Olivia Wilde, who makes her mark – British accent and all – as the model Hunt impulsively marries. There’s also noteworthy appearances from Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda’s own wife, and Game of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer as an early hookup of Hunt’s. Yet this is still Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl’s show the whole way through.
While Hemsworth is stepping outside his Thor costume as Hunt, he is still playing a man out of Thor’s own heart – at least Thor before he learned a little humility. Hunt has a somewhat thicker head, but Hemsworth still has the charisma, the skills to back it up, and the occasional bout of self-awareness outside of the superhero genre too.
Yet while Hemsworth is the headliner, lesser known Bruhl [a.k.a. Fredrick Zoller in Inglourious Basterds and Julian Assange’s partner in the upcoming The Fifth Estate] has stolen most of the raves and attention. Bruhl embodies Lauda as a tightly coiled, ready to pounce outsider, who’s every bit as arrogant as Hunt is reckless, but who can also back it up just as well. By and large, Bruhl gets the meatier material as Lauda’s journey gets more dangerous, and runs away with it to help the movie get deeper as it goes along.
As it turns out, Rush is more like Lauda than Hunt in its no-nonsense, direct, tightly controlled approach to this story. Some may want it to be more wild and uninhibited like Hunt, but by Howard’s often tame standards, it is still fairly crazy. Regardless, Rush does what it sets out to do, with just the right amount of daring do without going overboard on purpose, much like Lauda did – with room for the occasional burst of Hunt recklessness as well.