Rush is the story of the rivalry between two formula-1 racers going into the 1976 season. Nikki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is a precise austrian, fully dedicated to the mechanics of racing. On the other hand, englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a sexy partyboy as in love with the benefits of being a popular driver than he is of racing itself. As you can see, this story features cars, racing, violence and sex. If you say the first name that came to your mind for directing such a movie was Ron Howard, well, then you’d be lying.
Howard is most well known for being the director behind such middle-brow, by-the-numbers movies as A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man or The Da Vinci Code. Even when he makes good movies, like Frost/Nixon or Apollo 13, they’re far from edgy or sexy. On paper, Rush feels like a desperate attempt from Howard’s part to still be considered a relevant voice in today’s very youth-oriented cinematic landscape. A traditionally “square” director trying to be edgy is usually nothing but a recipe for disaster. What I was expecting from Rush was a movie hilariously unaware of how ridiculous its attempt at being cool were (like that time on Mad Men when Betty visited the Village, but in the 1970s). In many aspects, Rush does go for the obvious and expected choices for a movie about male rivalry and it portrays the 70s in not-so-imaginative ways (like its instagram-influenced cinematography). But the truth is that Ron Howard actually manages to embrace the playful sexiness and the raw danger of racing cars. It’s not so much that the director has proven to be sexy and edgy himself, but that he has demonstrated something I actually had been suspecting for a long time. If Ron Howard isn’t exactly an “auteur”, he is certainly a more classical type of technically efficient and serviceable director. Even if the result isn’t always good, he fully commits to the appropriate tone to the material he is working with. It just so happens that his material tends to not be very good.
This time, the material comes not only from a historical source, but from screenwriter Peter Morgan, who is certainly familiar with this type of power rivalries having written such films as The Special Relationship, The Damned United and the Howard-directed Frost/Nixon. I’m not a fan of formula one racing. I’m actually not a big fan of sports overall, but there is no denying that there are certain narratives that arise with every sporting season of tournament. I’m always swept up by the fever that comes from the FIFA World Cup every four years, for example. The narrative around the 1979 Grand Prix, in which Richard Hunt was looking to win his first cup agains defending champion Lauda, is undoubtedly an interesting story. It isn’t much a problem, then, that Morgan has written a very familiar screenplay. It hits most of the notes you’d expect from a movie in this genre. And it features a completely unnecessary narration, which is the one movie trope that annoys me more than any other. Aside of the certainly expensive racing sequences (which are very well realized, always tense when needed), the movie feels very much like the typical HBO original movie.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t good. Quite the contrary; those movies, even if a little too familiar, tend to be very solid. And there is credit to be had by both Morgan and Howard in knowing how to milk the most tension and power out of the key scenes in the story. The true guys in charge of elevating the movie into something more than your average movie, though, are the two lead stars. Chris Hemsworth is a huge factory of charisma. At many times during the movie, James Hunt comes off as a huge asshole. His motivations are often not as clear and noble as Lauda’s (especially towards the second half), but Hemsworth knows how to play him. Even when the script goes into broader more cliched characterizations, Hemsworth knows how to make Hunt feel like a full-fledged human being. On the other hand, Daniel Brühl has pretty much the opposite task as Hemsworth. Nikki Lauda has clear motivations and towards the end a very emotional and sympathetic struggle between life as a racer and as a husband, but is such a cold and pragmatic character that it’s hard to care for him at first. Brühl, however, nails the obsessiveness and the awkwardness of the character while still managing to show the humanity within. After his amazing work in Goodbye Lenin, Inglourious Basterds and now this, I hope Brühl keeps getting great roles in the future.
More than anything, Rush is a crowd-pleaser. It’s good to go in not expecting much more than a good time at the movies. It may not be one of the year’s most profound or original films, but it’s a well-crafted film with two great performances at its center.