More than three decades after his feature debut Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard once more feels the need for speed in this loud and proud biopic centred around one of motor sport’s greatest rivalries.
Perhaps more than any other sport, Formula One deeply divides opinion between those who would rather sit in a traffic jam to those who live for race day.
Previously, motor sport movies such as Grand Prix and Le Mans generally tailored themselves towards the petrol head. That was until the 2010 British documentary Senna, a stunning and deeply moving film about the life and tragic death of Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna. Crucially, Senna managed to make its subject accessible to the uninitiated and avoid dumbing itself down to the serious fans at the same time.
It’s a feat Howard just about carries off in Rush which, like Senna, chronicles an intense duel between two drivers – Britain’s James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda.
The film charts their professional rivalry from their days as young Formula Three drivers in 1970 to the topsy-turvy 1976 F1 season, during which Hunt suffered multiple setbacks and Lauda was involved in a horrifying crash that resulted in severe burns, before it all came down to the final race in Japan.
Howard has a capacity to imbue his more prestigious projects (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) with an admirable authenticity and he tackles Rush with a similar mindset. The saturated colours and grainy lens lend the film a 1970s air that’s complemented by a close attention to detail in the costume and production design.
Australian actor Chris Hemsworth’s acting talents are still relatively unknown beyond his performances as Thor in the Marvel film series and he has a ball as Hunt, the larger-than-life playboy who’s as gifted behind the wheel as he is between the sheets (he’s rumoured to have slept with more than 5,000 women). Hunt isn’t a one-dimensional cartoon, though, and Hemsworth evokes the highs and lows that came with his excessive lifestyle, while also showing why he chose to risk life and limb each and every race.
Normally it’s the Brits who are the reserved ones, but here it’s Daniel Brühl’s Lauda, who’s all about maximising performance, methodical preparation and driving within acceptable levels of risk. Brühl does a smart job of garnering the audience’s empathy for a character who, on paper, is a cool, self-controlled jerk with a singular purpose to win. In one effectively staged scene, a honeymooning Lauda stares worriedly out the window, realising that with new wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) he now has something to lose; while in the corner of the shot a fire burns, cleverly foreshadowing the appalling accident that is to come.
Howard reteams with writer Peter Morgan following Frost/Nixon, another 70s drama about high stakes and intense rivalry. Although not as powerful a script, Morgan’s spiky dialogue keeps things racing along at a fast enough speed in spite of the incessant exposition-heavy commentary that threatens to overtake each and every race.
The races themselves are when the film high truly hits top gear. Howard keeps the camera tight on Hunt or Lauda or low to the track (including some engine-specific digital effects work) to give a convincing impression of the terrifying speeds these horse-powered coffins were capable of, and almost overwhelms the senses with a ear-bleeding wall of sound.
This is Hemsworth’s and Lauda’s show, but Olivia Wilde impresses as it-girl Suzy Miller, who turns Hunt’s head, while Christian McKay is wonderfully fruity as Alexander Hesketh, the colourful owner of Hunt’s first racing team.
Although too conventional for a story such as this, Rush nevertheless fires on enough cylinders to make it a worthy study of what drove two men to risk it all to win.