The best thing about “Rush”—Ron Howard’s exhilarating new movie—is that it’s one hundred percent character driven. Forget the fact that the movie is about Formula One Racing, or tells the true story of the 1970’s rivalry between British driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and German Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), Howard’s main goal is to develop the lives of these fascinating guys, who had very different approaches to the sport. Approaches that yielded both strengths and weaknesses.
The film is about their rivalry but Howard doesn’t choose sides. He doesn’t make one driver appear better than the other; he doesn’t set the movie from the point of view of either driver. Instead he gives each one ample time, remaining objective. “Rush” has some of the best character development of any movie I’ve seen this year, in fact to call them “characters” is kind of insulting. As portrayed in the movie, Hunt and Lauda are human beings, with strengths and flaws.
Hunt is the more aggressive of the two. To him racing is the ultimate ride, an adrenaline rush (no puns intended) and he has no problem staring death in the face during each and every race. With his classic good looks (chiseled face and long flowing blonde hair) and his all-around charming personality, James is made out to be the likable one, initially. But Howard digs beneath this likable exterior and exposes his downfalls. As much as he likes attention and to be around people (you can see him having a celebratory drink after just about every race) he’s incredibly selfish and arrogant, rubbing his victories in his rivals’ faces. On top of that, while his aggression and headstrongness does pay off in some regards, he’s also wildly inconsistent when it comes to winning. Not to mention his playboy tendencies; I lost count of how many women he has sex with during the movie. He does take a wife, a women named Suzy (Olivia Wilde) but it’s mainly just for show and it ends badly when he violently snaps at her after a bad race.
Overall, what we can gather about James is that he’s restless and unable to settle down which proves to have dire consequences; at the end we’re informed that he died of a heart attack at age forty-five. This is by far the most complex character Hemsworth has portrayed, and yet it still plays to his sensibilities as an actor. He slips into the role with almost no effort.
Though, Bruhl has the more difficult role to play. Where Hunt initially comes off charming and likable, Lauda comes off cold and unpleasant, and unlike Hunt he doesn’t have the good looks (Hunt even remarks that he looks like a rat). To him, Formula One racing is a science more than a sport. He knows more about the cars from a technological standpoint but he doesn’t appear to be having much fun doing it. For him, safety is the number one concern and he likes to have everything calculated out. Sometimes this comes in handy and sometimes he over calculates (when he gets in a violent crash). His philosophy is almost the exact opposite of Hunt’s. On top of that he doesn’t like to socialize all that much and he has this smug sense of entitlement; to him his way is the best and only way. All of this contributes to his cold exterior.
At the same time, there’s something to be said for Lauda’s disciplined approach to the sport. He’s more consistent when it comes to winning, he doesn’t spend a lot of time basking in his victories and when he gets married (to a gal played by Natalie Dormer) you can see a legitimate connection between them. To Lauda, Formula One racing isn’t a game but an art form. Ultimately, we can surmise that Lauda is more passionate about the sport itself; he’s more dedicated, whereas Hunt is more of a thrill seeker and a showman. Bruhl injects sly wit into his performance, and even though Lauda remains unlikable for much of the movie you can’t take your eyes off of him.
The filmmakers immerse us into this intense and exciting environment. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer) utilize hand held cameras--a lot of them, apparently. There are cameras all over the place; in the air, in the crowds, on the racetrack and there appear to be about six or seven attached to the cars alone (there are a number of POV shots). Howard keeps the picture going at a breezy pace and the editing by Daniel P Hanley and Mike Hill is fast paced. The film zips from one scene to another with so much kinetic force that it’s exhilarating. Howard brings us up close and personal to all of the fury. You can almost smell the burnt rubber and exhaust, and hear the engines roar. It’s overwhelming, in a good way.
Besides the rivalry, Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) multilayered screenplay addresses a number of other issues associated with Formula One, or any kind of racing for that matter, such as the impersonality of the sport. For all the thrill and excitement Formula One is a business and the more money you have the better chance you’ll have of racing. You can be a very talented driver but if you can’t find any sponsors you can’t compete. More importantly the film addresses the very real danger connected with racing. For as fun and freewheeling (again, no pun intended) as the movie can be, Howard takes this aspect extremely seriously. As we see later on, accidents can happen and serious injuries can occur. This adds another layer of tension to the movie.
Even with these issues addressed though, everything goes back to Hunt and Lauda. They’re the central force of the picture. It’s absolutely mesmerizing watching them, as they take shots at each another at races or at press conferences, as they interact with their spouses and crewmembers and seeing what motivates them on and off the racetrack. You may be rooting for them one minute, or detesting them the next but no matter what they always keep your interest.