Brains vs. braun; driving by the seat of your pants vs. driving by precision mathematics; put them together and they would most likely make the best Formula One driver in the world. Separately, they are party boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and egghead Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Their mid-‘70s rivalry sparked interest, at least internationally if not American, in open-wheeled auto racing; a far more life-threatening sport a few decades ago than it is now.
Heated rivalries and grudge matches spark intriguing story lines in sports. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, and Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding are names that breathe fire into fierce competitions. Would any of these folks have been as good without the other one to feed off of? Well, Kerrigan probably would have. The competitors in Rush are naturally polar opposites from one another in all respects save one, their desire to win.
Starting down in the Formula Three trenches where the two leading men development their animosity toward one another and culminating on some of the fastest and most dangerous racetracks the world has to offer, Hunt and Lauda are convinced their respective life philosophies are the key to winning. Pretty boy James hops from booze, drugs, and women into the driver’s seat. Life is a game and humans are here to play it. Tactician Niki knows smarts and perfection will lead to victory lane. Through a drawn out series of smack talk and one-upmanship, these two racecar drivers could not be mentioned in separate sentences; Lauda and Hunt were a brand name.
Rush gives us more than name-calling and fast cars though; we also get their respective wives and off track behavior to complete their development. James impulsively marries top model Suzy Miller (a heavily made up Olivia Wilde) but their relationship hides off screen until it’s time to pull the plug. Niki sort of meanders into a marriage and even warns the girl beforehand that he can be difficult and does not want to be happy; happiness means you have something to lose out there on the racetrack. I was unaware drivers are so introspective.
Hemsworth and Bruhl are a joy to watch as macho men with too much swagger. James is always up for a good time, but those moments before a race when he vomits his apprehension shows a hidden vulnerability. Bruhl absolutely knocks its out of the park as Niki Lauda and steals the show. He is strict with his crew, snobbish to inferior drivers, and is probably not the best conversationalist at the dinner table, but here is a man who knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and how he is going to achieve it.
These parts, while effective in their individual scenes, fail to make a truly effective whole though. Director Ron Howard found a good story from writer Peter Morgan (they worked together previously on Frost/Nixon, 2008) but there is no punch. Niki goes through a devastating accident suffering gruesome burns to his face, but the previews already committed the sin of giving all of the interesting plot points away leaving only a few crumbs behind for the audience to discover.
The racing scenes produce the adrenaline they want to out of you and the cinematography, which is invasive enough to march right up into the drivers’ facemasks, is laudable. There is really something missing in Rush and I think it is in the script. There are multiple conversations with the required platitudes about how their respective racing styles are effective or not or how they relish the competition, but they do not go deep enough. Frost/Nixon showed some of the most riveting back and forths in the last decade; it is too bad some of that gravitas did not seep its way into Rush.
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Julian Rhind-Tutt