“Rush” stars Chris Hemsworth (better known as “Thor”) and Daniel Bruhl as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the two Formula One race car drivers whose duels dominated the early 1970s. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie has delighted gearheads but also appeals to those who like good character drama. If Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan occasionally overstate the level of personal antagonism between the two men in order to make a point, they do so in the service of the dramatic tension, as opposed to authenticity.
The film opens in 1976, the year after Lauda first won the circuit championship. In a voiceover narration, Lauda (Bruhl) notes that of the 25 racers who begin each year, on average two of them die. Hunt (Hemsworth) later opines that a Formula One car is “a little coffin on wheels,” as if the viewer needed any reminder of the mortal stakes facing the men. Of the two, the brash, reckless Hunt seems more likely to crash than the meticulous, methodical Lauda.
Yet it is Lauda who becomes involved in a terrible accident, one that disfigures him terribly, endangering not just his career but his life. This occurs during the movie’s long flashback covering the building rivalry from 1970, when the two first meet as Formula Three opponents, up to the race that starts the film. Their racing styles mirror their approach to life. The handsome, charismatic Hunt lives the playboy life; Lauda is socially challenged, in part because of his brutal honesty and arrogance toward just about everyone else.
From a dramatic standpoint, the moments when these two confront each other off the track are more engaging than their driving duels. These latter display flashy cinematography and editing, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s unrelenting music and rock music to catch the era and the sport’s sexiness. They also become repetitive fairly quickly, Howard going long on spectacle and the glamorous trappings surrounding the races.
In contrast, the portraits of their personal lives catch the dangers inherent in each man’s approach to life. Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude and socializing ensure his popularity but cost him his first marriage, to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde). Lauda’s intense competitiveness alienates his wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) and even his teammates. Hunt, the film notes at the end, died in his 40s; Lauda won more championships. Hemsworth and Bruhl overcome some awkward dialogue to establish the two men’s antagonism but also suggest their admiration of each other. Though Hunt continually calls Lauda a rat—the Austrian has a significant overbite—Lauda regards the insult as praise, declaring that rats are small but wily with great survival instincts.
“Rush” is rated “R” for profanity, sexuality, some nudity, and “some disturbing images,” such as when the injured Lauda has to have his lungs vacuumed out, surely the movie’s most gut wrenching moment. Racing fans will appreciate Howard’s attempt to catch the sport’s flavor cinematically; movie buffs may wish for more human interaction, as opposed to clashing machines.