Sometimes, reality can prove itself better than fiction. If Rush were an entirely fabricated story about the rivalry between two racing drivers in the 1970s, then it would probably have a quite clear delineation between them: a smiling “good guy” for the audience to root for and who ultimately triumphs, versus a cynical “bad guy” who frequently looks to be on top before his eventual defeat. Instead, it’s a film with two heroes, allowing the viewer to decide whether to sympathise with maverick playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), analytical recluse Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), or both.
In stark contrast to the last great F1-related film – Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna, whose influence creeps into almost every corner of Ron Howard’s biopic – Rush is hence firmly not the tale of one driver. Instead, the attention of the narrative veers back and forth between the pair, not unlike an on-track duel where neither can quite get the upper hand.
Having introduced Hemsworth’s charming yet self-destructive drive-and-shag machine and Brühl’s prickly, shrewd careerist, and placed them in direct conflict with an early clash at a Formula Three meeting, the film then separates their career paths and social lives until they actually reach Formula One and become title rivals in the infamous, and incident-packed, 1976 season. In doing so, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan actually make their most significant break with actual history, disregarding the fact that the real Hunt and Lauda shared a flat together in London for a time, and were never the insult-trading antagonists that this script makes them out to be.
It’s an understandable decision to make, however, in so much as it manufactures more in the way of conflict than might otherwise have existed. But it also leads to a wider flaw, which is that the narrative comes off as somewhat schizophrenic. Each time the audience is allowed to settle in to the life and personality of one character, they take a sudden step back and the other driver comes to the fore.
Hunt, in particular, suffers each time the story switches away from him, and although Hemsworth brings the requisite effortless charm to the role, he’s never really called upon to examine the obvious inner demons of a man who constantly chases thrill and pleasure yet seemingly never allows himself actual happiness. This also means that Olivia Wilde’s role as Hunt’s first wife Suzy Miller is downright wasted – other than having a galvanising effect on Hunt’s career at a particular point, the buildup and subsequent breakdown of their relationship is never explored in any satisfying detail.
It’s Lauda, then, who benefits more, particularly thanks to a downright uncanny and compelling performance from Brühl, who doesn’t so much play the role as inhabit it entirely (and one suspects he would manage to achieve this with or without the false front teeth that emphasise just why Lauda’s nickname in the paddock was “The Rat”). His own romantic subplot has more depth to it, becoming the story of his eventual wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) getting under his almost wilfully, obstinately cold exterior (“If I’m going to do this with anyone,” he tells her on their wedding day, “it might as well be you.”) Hunt may have attracted more attention from the tabloids, but Lauda comes off as the significantly more interesting and complex figure.
Of course, the off-track tale is only half of the story, and more than anything, Rush is likely to be judged on how it pulls off the actual racing atmosphere. In this sense, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a triumph. Admittedly the competition is hardly fierce – open-wheeled racing has only really been covered in fictional form in the pretty but hollow 1966 Grand Prix, and in Renny Harlin’s somewhat unconvincing Driven – but Rush easily sets itself out as the finest big screen representation the sport has yet had, arguably even surpassing Senna‘s use of real-life footage in terms of presenting an engaging, visceral experience.
“Men love women,” eccentric team boss Lord Hesketh tells a girlfriend of Hunt’s early in the film, “but they really love cars.” That being the case, Rush is basically pornography for petrolheads – the ugly, hulking brutes that were F1 cars of the late 70s are made beautiful by lingering close-ups, and astonishing sound design that relentlessly bombards the ears whenever an engine is fired up. The weight of those heavy, clattering pre-carbon fibre machines is made tangible, and you might even feel like you’re actually smelling all those petrol fumes.
Howard directs the speed sequences with verve and flair, rarely relying on gimmicks – save the odd slightly ethereal blurry first-person sequence – and instead simply conveying a pure sense of thrill and pace. It perhaps helps that the story doesn’t need to rely on contrived back-and-forth overtaking battles on the track – one of the quirks of the 1976 season was that Hunt and Lauda rarely raced together at the front, each usually taking victory while the other was retired or lower down the order – so the film can sell its tension on pure atmosphere alone. The choreography of famous moments such as Lauda’s fiery crash at the Nurburgring, meanwhile, is so precise that it’s easy to imagine Howard has discovered new, high-resolution footage of the actual event.
When it hits top gear, Rush is a thrilling, frenetic experience that immerses the viewer fully in a world that’s equal parts grit and glamour, with admirable attention to detail and – despite a few liberties taken here and there – a determination to be even-handed about both its protagonists. It’s difficult to say whether the human story alone is enough to appeal to those who aren’t at least passing fans of F1, but whenever it gets behind the wheel it has a serious claim to being the best motor sport movie yet.
Rush is out in UK cinemas on the 30th September.
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