Ron Howard directs this adrenaline-fuelled cinematic retelling of the Formula 1 rivalry between English playboy James Hunt and Austrian tactician Niki Lauda. Ryan Pollard takes a look…
Academy Award-winner Ron Howard (Splash and Apollo 13) once again teams up with Academy Award-nominated writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) on Rush, a fast-paced and spectacular re-creation of the merciless and legendary 1970s Formula 1 rivalry between English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and his Austrian opponent Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Set against the sexy and glamorous golden age of racing, Rush portrays the exhilarating true story of the charismatic Hunt and the methodically brilliant Lauda, two of the greatest rivals the world of sport has ever witnessed. Taking us into their personal lives and clashes on and off the Grand Prix racetrack, Rush follows the two drivers as they push themselves to the breaking point of physical and psychological endurance, where there is no shortcut to victory and no margin for error.
Ron Howard and Peter Morgan have tried to make Formula 1 as mainstream as possible here with very broad brush strokes. Sometimes, those brush strokes can be too bold, but Ron Howard clearly understands that there’s a certain section of the audience that is going to need to understand what Formula 1 is and how it works. Therefore, he utilises commentators to fill in the blanks while captions tell us about what race this is, what time it’s happening and who’s winning against who.
Yet despite this heavy-handed aesthetic, Rush still works as a great piece of cinema, and the reason it works is that it has, at its centre, a real fire and ice story with the lukewarm water in the middle. The film clearly sets Hunt and Lauda as two very different and opposing counterparts. Almost like a ying and a yang complex. James Hunt is seemingly uncontrollably attractive to the opposite sex, drug-fuelled and hot-blooded, while Nikki Lauda is someone dedicated to the craft of driving: serious, calculating and determined.
The film benefits from strong performances. Chris Hemsworth appears to be channelling the ghost of Austin Powers occasionally, acting like a Merrie English swinger for whom naughty NHS nurses in stockings, in the shape of the brilliant but too brief Natalie Dormer, provide him more than just first aid. Meanwhile saucy stewardesses offer him obliging membership to the mile-high club whilst he maintains his cool in a polo-neck sweater. Having toned down his performance by a margin compared to his hammer-swinging thunder god Thor, the Australian Hemsworth is ready for high-octane, full-blooded action on and off the track, although his posh-school British accent sometimes slides off the border rather like the slick-tyred wheels on a very rainy racetrack.
However, it is Daniel Brühl as the rigidly locked-down Lauda who is arguably the more interesting and more compelling of the two characters. The enigmatic Austrian’s driving forces are more elusive and calculating that it causes us to wonder about his true motives, as opposed to Hunt’s boyish charm and sheer enthusiasm which are all clearly shown on the surface. Like his eternal adversary, Lauda is the son of wealth and rebelling against an all-too privileged past, and that is the only common bond that joins this odd couple together, but whereas Hunt wears his personality and his passions on his sleeve (his badge bearing the legend “Sex: Breakfast of Champions”), Lauda’s demons are much more internalised, leaving Brühl to wrestle with a character that is emotionally distant, something he manages with incredible aplomb. Why he wasn’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Oscars I have no idea.
The supporting cast also give solid performances whilst adding to the appeal, with Alexandra Maria Lara and Olivia Wilde making the most of their twin wife roles, while the fantastic Christian McKay reminds us that we have seen too little of him since his fantastic breakthrough role in Me and Orson Welles, where he was more Welles than Welles.
The film itself is directed by somebody who has a good understanding of the mainstream audience he’s aiming for, but Ron Howard is also someone who has a deep love of cars. This is evident in his back catalogue with Grand Theft Auto and he also starred in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which has that whole love of drive-ins and nostalgia. So you can see that deep passion in Rush, and the sound effects are absolutely thrilling, because as you sit there watching this thrill-ride happening on screen, and the sound is the core thing that puts you in the driver’s seat and completely engulfs you. The race sequences are terrifying beyond belief as you do get that sense of people doing something that is completely dangerous, and that is shown through Anthony Dod Mantle’s gorgeous cinematography as the camera zooms in and out of the race cars and through the wheels and the driver’s helmets. You do feel like you are travelling at 100 miles an hour around the track.
Rush is a film with clear lines that plays to the grandstands, but that is what Howard does. He is a very successful populist director, even though there are exceptions to that, because with films like The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and The Dilemma, he does drop the ball occasionally. But he does play to the mainstream crowd, and wider audiences will get and understand the film, even if they are not familiar with the subject matter.