If there’s one thing Academy Award winning director Ron Howard loves, it’s rivalry. And a good true story too. Be it the clash of intelligence between John Nash and Martin Henson in A Beautiful Mind, or the Depression-era battle between boxers James Braddock and Max Baer in Cinderella Man, or the interview based war of words between Richard Nixon and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Howard’s films often showcase how fear, pressure, and competition bring out the best of one’s abilities. Luckily, Rush, about rival Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), has all the makings of a good Ron Howard movie at its core – a riveting true story with a scorching rivalry – and therefore it’s the director’s most exciting and thematically alive effort in years.
Tracking the 1976 Formula One season, Rush succeeds more as a character study and less as a sports drama. Though rapid editing increases the tension of several ferocious racing scenes, overstated cinematography combined with some awkward camera angles take away from their all-encompassing nature. Regardless, each subsequent race feels more enthralling and dangerous because Howard puts the focus where it matters most – the drivers and not the cars.
As Hunt and Lauda, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are exceptional, expertly staging a fierce rivalry between foil characters – Hunt is a playboy lover who quietly fears death while Lauda is unafraid of death but fearful of love – and stirringly building a co-dependent relationship that could only exist out of the will to defeat one another. Hemsworth, in his best performance to date, is a live wire, nailing Hunt’s hotheaded cockiness and devilish charm (it’s no wonder he gets all the ladies) while never losing sight of what really drove the racer – fear. Always restless and short tempered, Hemsworth really gets at the core of a thrill seeker. He’s dynamite. Bruhl, in one of his first major leading roles, is also fantastic. Lauda was a highly technical racer and Bruhl brings to life the by-the-books brashness that made the Austrian racer so hard to like but so frankly humorous. Alone, both actors wisely show their characters’ vulnerabilities but together they rev each other up, with each one giving the other the passion and desire to be stronger, faster, and more of a champion. It’s a fascinatingly complex relationship and Hemsworth and Bruhl are victorious.
And yet, for a movie called Rush, a part of me wishes the entire production just slowed down a little. Peter Morgan’s screenplay constantly jumps from one event to the next, and while it makes sense for a film about Formula One racers to move at a rapid pace, it undermines certain parts of the story. Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller, a model who Hunt marries on a whim, is so barely in the picture that her relationship with James never rises above exposition – we get she’s there to prove how Hunt’s lifestyle cant sustain love (a contrast to Lauda) but we hardly feel it because one minute she’s in and the very next she’s out. Howard also has cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle always move the camera; this once again makes sense given the film’s material but in certain shots, such as many over-the-head establishing shots, the film uses a zoom to supply motion that feels incredibly amateurish (almost like a Ken Burns effect on old versions of iMovie).
Essentially, Rush isn’t perfect nor is it the awards contender many have been claiming but where it matters most – the emotion of the rivalry – the film more than succeeds. When Lauda suffers severe facial burns after a horrific crash you feel just as shattered as he does, and Bruhl’s gruesome expressions as he tries to get back behind the wheel as quickly as possible create a powerhouse moment of motivation. Instances like these make Rush a worthy, rousing trip to the theater. For a sport uncommon in the US, the film deftly shows the dangers of Formula One and the addiction that comes with high-risk anything. Racing is everything to Lauda and Hunt and Howard makes you feel that high speeding energy. With great performances and an exciting true story, Rush is perfect Fall adult entertainment.
Review by Zack Sharf