If you’ve ever been to a race track the one thing that hits you as soon as those cars pull away is the volume of noise. It’s hard to describe. Only a small handful of car racing films have managed to show a certain reality of the race track, Steve McQueen’s Le Mans is one, the Cinerama spectacle Grand Prix is another, but while the visuals of those two were able to illustrate what the track looked like from a driver’s perspective, neither quite captured the sheer energy and power that comes from the roar of those engines. It’s overwhelming. Ron Howard’s Rush might be the first.
Rush is the true story of the media inspired rivalry between two drivers, Britain’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) set against the backdrop of the 1976 Formula One season. There are rivalries in sport all the time, so the question might be, why make a film about two drivers, largely unknown in America, relating events that occurred almost forty years ago? The reason is, at the time, both Hunt and Lauda transcended the sport. The newspapers, particularly the British tabloids, made them into stars with daily headlines of their battles, their achievements and their personal lives in the way that actors or immature pop stars are reported upon today. At the time, everyone knew Hunt and Lauda, even if you had no interest in racing.
Both men might have been highly skilled in the same sport but Hunt and Lauda could not have been more opposite in character. Hunt was the playboy; the good looking, blonde-haired, impetuous lover with the well spoken, upper middle-class British accent who reveled in the glitzy lifestyle that came with the success of the sport. “Live each day as your last,” he proclaimed. Lauda, on the other hand, while coming from money, was the practical one with the Austrian accent. He shunned parties and ignored the nightlife. “Happiness is the enemy,” he states at one point. “It weakens you.” The way Lauda knew what was wrong with a car’s performance from its sound or simply from the way it looked was impressive. To Lauda, Formula One car racing was an art form, to Hunt it was a rush.
The film lightly touches on earlier events in both men’s lives. We see Hunt’s short marriage to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde; nice accent) before she left him for actor Richard Burton, and Lauda’s developing relationship with wealthy socialite Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) a woman he later marries. But the bulk of the film concentrates on the qualifying events of 1976 at the height of their popularity and fame. At one point, after witnessing an adrenaline-fueled race accompanied by a volume of noise that could make ears bleed, Slade’s Mamma, We’re All Crazee Now blasts over the speakers. The seventies pop/rock couldn’t be more appropriate. From the hair-raising speeds, the spins and the death defying turns, who in their right mind would want to race a car? “What normal man does a job like this?” Lauda asks. Let’s face it; they’re all crazee.
The film succeeds in delivering the visceral feel of what it’s like sitting behind the wheel. The visuals and the sound are overpowering, at times even breathtaking as images fly by in a blur. But Rush is less successful when dealing with explaining the passion behind the sport. An issue that many have with sports films is trying to understand why a sports figure loves what he does. With Rush, like most films that cover sporting events, there’s no moment where a character tries to put into words what it means to him to sit behind that wheel. For someone who already enjoys watching the sport, no explanation is required, but for the many that just don’t get it, the love of wanting to put yourself through something that appears so incredibly dangerous and reckless is difficult to understand.
The performances of both Hemsworth and Bruhl capture the spirit of Hunt and Lauda. They’re the way I remember them. The British media made Hunt the hero and Lauda a kind of villain, an easy picture to paint considering Hunt was a homegrown Brit and Lauda was the foreigner – oh, those tabloids – but the reality wasn’t quite that simple. They were neither heroes nor villains, and their rivalry as portrayed didn’t really exist. There was a professional rivalry, naturally, but there was also a form of respect. When a reporter asks the wrong question at a press conference, an embarrassed Lauda storms out. Hunt later approaches that reporter, pulls him aside and knocks his teeth out on Lauda’s behalf. It’s a telling moment.
Rush won’t change anyone’s mind regarding their attitude towards the sport. Fans of car racing will thrill to the race. Others may find the relationship between Hunt and Lauda a fascinating study of privilege and personal drive, while the rest will probably remain puzzled as to why anyone would go anywhere near a race track or share time with anyone involved with the sport. But the one thing everyone should agree upon is the skill with which Ron Howard has directed his film and brought all those elements together in one entertaining whole. It’s not the best car racing movie – for me, Le Mans remains the reigning champ – but it’s the most accomplished to date, and certainly the loudest.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 123 minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)