Should we accept the common virtue of safety? Or, sometimes in the future when cars become self-regulated, will we–too stubborn to lose the thrill–reject the disappearance of the human element?
Pushing toward that thrill is at the axis of “Rush,” Ron Howard’s superb film about Formula 1 racing of the seventies. At the end of the push, Peter Morgan’s script suggests, is ecstacy or mortality. That push is at the center of the rivalry between two legendary world champions from that era.
The popular, dashing Brit James Hunt was the epitome of the playboy racer: a lady killer living for the thrill from track to track, bottle to bottle and bed to bed. Women stop when he walks into a room. Overwhelmingly talented and slightly reckless, Hunt may be the guy for whom things come too easy, always at risk of wasting away.
Niki Lauda, his Austrian nemesis, is not into the adventure. His strengths are mathematical and analytical, he is a master at engineering a car to trim precious seconds. Poisoned at birth by shortness and an overbite, rejected by his wealthy father, the chip on his shoulder makes him feared and hated. Down deep, Lauda looks at outlasting his enemies as victory.
Rush tracks the rivalry from minor league races in the early seventies and builds to the tense, exciting and ultimately catastrophic 1976 Formula 1 season. Hunt and Lauda wouldn’t know it at the time but they were racing toward separate, unexpected destinies, the sort that would leave them permanently changed.
What makes “Rush” patently successful is how easily Howard and Morgan resist the easy assignment of hero and villain. The story of Lauda v. Hunt has “Ben Hur” and “Masala” written over it; all it needs are spikes on the wheels. Hunt burns charisma, and Hemsworth, in a star-making role, plays up his thrill-a-minute personality and carnal irresistibility. But it also sharply presents him as a man who came close to squandering his talent.
A strength of this film is the disarming way in which our sympathy for the misunderstood Lauda (German actor Daniel Bruhl) growss. His off-putting personality and appearance make him a shoo-in for the role of the vilain. And yet, you see virtue in his determination reach his potential a world that appears to be propped up against him. In the end, the film taps into a surprising well of decency, and commitment to other people, traits which will lead him to a fateful choice ultimately.
“Rush” is Howard’s best film in some time, one of the occasions when his above-average craftsmanship and willingness to explore visually align with the story being told. While the look seems unnecessarily oversaturated, it is helped by a super-charged sound design for the races. “Rush” is a tremendous example of the sorts of intelligent films that Hollywood resources can make, but too rarely do.