The rivalry between 70s F1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda provides a veritable goldmine of drama, white-knuckle tension and pathos in director Ron Howard’s Rush. Charting the Hunt and Lauda’s rise from aggressive young upstarts in Formula Three to their continued clashes in the glamorous world of Formula One, Rush captures the hedonism and danger of motorsport in the 1970s.
Peter Morgan’s script is finely balanced, introducing first Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and then Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), and carefully digging through the layers of their respective bravado and arrogance to find the deeper flaws and vulnerabilities lying beneath; Lauda is a technical genius both in the garage and the track, but his cold demeanour and less-than rockstar looks set him apart from the animal magnetism of Hunt, who seduces with nurses with a flutter of his eyelashes and charges around the racing circuit with kamikaze fury.
At times, Lauda’s pettiness and somewhat dour character hold us at arm’s length, even as we’re slightly repelled by Hunt’s cockiness and dismissive attitude towards his diminutive rival. But just as Lauda and Hunt learn to respect one another over several seasons of near-death experiences, so we begin to like each of them in spite of the uglier sides of their personalities.
Chris Hemsworth is great as Hunt, adopting the real-life racer’s crisp upper-class accent and body language admirably. Yet Bruhl is even better as Lauda, turning in an uncanny performance that goes beyond mere impersonation; sure, the curious denture he’s made to wear (mimicking the real Lauda’s distinctive overbite) is a little distracting, but Bruhl perfectly embodies all aspects of his character, portraying his brittle public persona and the warmth tucked away within – his scenes with his future wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) are a world apart from the cool competition on the track.
Howard effectively captures the sound and fury of a 70s F1 race, where the cars were built for speed rather than safety and single mistake could result in a horrible death. Off the track, the flamboyant clothes, haircuts and beige sofas of 70s clubs and bars are recreated faithfully, and perhaps with a hint of nostalgia for an analogue age where men’s shirts were open to the navel and gold medallions clung to hairy chests.
This backdrop is perhaps why Bruhl’s embodiment of Niki Lauda makes such a firm impression in Rush. Hunt is very much of his time; like Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski in 90s Los Angeles, Hunt fits right in there – he’s at one with the flowing champagne, glam rock and bombast of the era. By contrast, Lauda seems cut off from it all. He’s a tech geek who can set up a racing car like a professional mechanic, and then drive the thing with precision – but he’s trapped in a time when being a geek was anything but cool. As his future wife says to Lauda on their first meeting, “You don’t look like a racing driver…”
It’s this aspect of Lauda that makes his character sympathetic even before his fateful race at the Nurburgring in 1976. And in its aftermath, we not only see another, incredibly brave side to Lauda, but also a greater level of compassion from the once fiercely competitive Hunt.
While the racing stuff’s all very exciting – and it has to be said, the film could have withstood a bit more off it – it’s out of the cramped F1 cockpits that Rush really shines. Superbly acted and economically directed by Howard, Rush is an absorbing drama from start to finish.
Rush is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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