Do you care about Formula One racing? No? Well, neither do I. But I loved the new Ron Howard movie “Rush,” which tells the story of the 1976 Formula One World Championship, and the rival drivers who made it so exciting.
“Rush” is something rare: a sports film that also works as a character study, and a fairly nuanced one at that. The rival drivers are British playboy James Hunt (who supposedly slept with 5,000 women before dying of a heart attack at age 45) and Austrian native Niki Lauda, whose seriousness and relentless determination made him hard to take. Although I liked Lauda (Daniel Brühl) quite a bit. He is the film’s true hero, which makes “Rush” unusual: The typical sports film celebrates colorful, quirky characters who refuse to play by the rules, but “Rush” has us cheering for an athlete with almost zero charisma. If most sports films are about Rocky or the Bad News Bears, “Rush” focuses on the humorless opposition. Of course, “Rush” is about two men, and Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is also an interesting character. By the end of the film, I was rooting for both of them.
“Rush” is tense and exciting; director Ron Howard does a great job of conveying just how dangerous Formula One racing was in the 1970s, as well as the darker aspects of Hunt and Lauda’s personalities. What’s interesting is how both men evolve: Lauda initially seems like the sort of guy who would sacrifice everything to win, while Hunt would rather party, but by the end of the film the picture is a bit more complicated. Lauda SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS has come back from a serious injury, and understands that he loves his wife and does not want to die, while Hunt is ready to lay everything on the line. By this point in the film, we understand that Hunt’s fun-loving ways — his tireless sexual appetite, his drug use and heavy drinking, as well as his reckless driving style — might be a form of self-medication. Is he prone to depression? Or hyperactive? It’s unclear. What is clear is that he’s incapable of slowing down. Lauda, on the other hand, is.
“Rush” is a well-crafted film. The racing scenes are crisp, thrilling and fun, except when they’re not (Lauda’s crash is harrowing), while the film’s quieter moments also crackle with energy. The movie is most interesting when Hunt and Lauda interact, their dislike for each other eventually replaced by a grudging respect. Though “Rush” is a drama, the film contains many moments of comedy, especially when Lauda and Hunt needle each other. At times, the movie is also surprisingly romantic, especially in an early scene when Lauda tells the woman who has offered to give him a ride that he can tell she needs a new fanbelt, then takes her for a death-defying drive through the hills of Italy. (She eventually marries him, so apparently this is a good way to pick up women.) Some of my favorite scenes occurred in the hospital, when TV footage of Hunt winning motivates Lauda to recover so he can race again.
As Lauda and Hunt, Brühl and Hemsworth are excellent. Hemsworth, best known for playing Thor, shows surprising range, perfectly embodying the role of a golden boy who is much more serious about winning than he lets on. Brühl, a talented German actor, ably captures the quiet intensity of an introvert with little patience for social niceties. Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara are interesting as the women in Lauda and Hunt’s lives, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more of them. But this is ultimately a movie about men.
“Rush” has spared some discussion about whether Howard should be a more highly regarded director. In cinephile circles, he’s given little respect; most critics view him as solid — capable of helming decent middlebrow entertainment. I like Howard more than that, as a quick glance at his filmography reveals a number of films I like a lot — “Splash,” “Cocoon,” “Parenthood” and “Frost/Nixon.” “Rush” can now be added to that list. I’m not sure any of the films I just named merit Howard for inclusion on a list of the top directors of all time, but his talent for crowd-pleasing, quality entertainment should not be estimated. After all, he got me to care about Formula One racing.
“Rush” has an unexpectedly moving coda, in which we see footage of the real Hunt and Lauda, and learn their fates. This is a movie that’s about a lot more than men who drive around in circles for a living.
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