Rush is exactly that—a thrilling movie ride that steps on the pedal from the opening scene and speeds through a breakneck 123 minutes. Directed by Ron Howard with a dynamism and vigor absent from his respectably commercial previous films, here is a movie that gets everything right—a superb coalescence of cinematography, music, editing and vintage period detail; an expertly written story of rivalry and sport; and pair of rich performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as ‘70s Formula One drivers and arch rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda. You don’t have to know a thing about race cars or have any interest in the sport to love this movie—one of 2013 best.
We first meet gregarious, swinging British party boy James Hunt (Hemsworth) as the lion-maned, golden god of the 1970 Formula Three amateur racing circuit, a sort of warm-up for the big leagues. By contrast, Austrian opponent Niki Lauda (Brühl) is antisocial, diminutive and repellant. When reckless Hunt nearly causes a Lauda mishap mid-race, their competition is borne—one that will extend personally and professionally across the years as each prepares to best the other in the 1976 Formula One competition.
Between the races Hunt lives and plays hard, indulging in drink and a bevy of beautiful women, a sort of entitlement for living life on the edge of death. But when he meets model Suzy Miller (a sun-kissed Olivia Wilde, doing the best British accent by an American I’ve ever heard), they promptly marry and then later divorce after Hunt loses the 1975 Formula One race to Lauda, hitting the skids without a sponsor or car.
Lauda himself finds a more grounded, practical partner in Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) and they too marry, better suited than Hunt and Miller, who takes up with Richard Burton after being spurned by Hunt.
Rush develops in surprising ways, veering into near tragedy and then back to rebirth, but this is no simple story of inspiration and eventual camaraderie. While the men develop a grudging and unacknowledged respect for each other, they never come to be friends—there is too much at stake in the madman’s bargain to win the world championship—and when a personal reckoning comes in Rush’s final moments, it is both surprising and affecting.
Throughout, the picture effectively establishes the dangers of a sport where death is just a hair’s breadth away from ego, Howard staging terrifying crashes that underscore Lauda’s central question, “What kind of person does a job like this?” Yet both men do.
Howard, making a quantum leap as a director (which is saying something given Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and even Cinderella Man) masterfully depicts a number of races during the 1976 season and with the extraordinary lensing of cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), finding ways to make the various countries and roadways and 210 mph accelerations look different, all underscored by the great Hans Zimmer’s melancholy score.
Peter Morgan’s intelligent, balanced screenplay never tips the empathy toward either Hunt or Lauda, nor does it make them macho archetypes—they are complicated men with unresolved father issues and personal limitations, common only in their need to win. Both Hemsworth, a fine actor here slimmed down from superhero status, and Brühl, star of Goodbye Lenin and Inglourious Basterds, are equally compelling. Brühl, in particular, delivers the punch in Rush’s closing scenes as Lauda experiences perhaps an ideological shift toward self-reflection.
The beauty of Rush, with Dodd Mantle’s searing, grainy images of engines igniting, rubber burning and two men, eyes locked on each other with death stalking each hairpin, is in how a large-scale action movie can feel so intimate.
That, folks, is an epic.