RON HOWARD IS a master story-teller. “Rush”, the (apparently, heavily) fictionalized account of the clash of two former titans of Formula One – Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) – is as grippingly told a tale as they come. The story tracks the progress of these two combatants, from their early days in Formula Three to a climatic battle in the rain on the track in Japan for the ultimate world championship.
As one of the team managers says in the movie, “Men love women, but their real love is for cars.” Well, perhaps, for some men anyway. The point is, though I’m sure men who love cars will love this film as much as they probably loved “Sena”, that other recent classic about motorsports, this isn’t a niche movie for car lovers or even for that matter, sports lovers. It’s a movie about the lengths people go to win, to pursue some sort of self imposed ideal of perfection.
It takes an almost existential fanaticism to push oneself to be the best. This was a time (the 70’s) when motorsports was probably the most dangerous sport in the world, and at least a couple of drivers died every season. This was the risk drivers faced every time they strapped themselves into the cockpits of their “racing bombs”. And Howard keeps this risk at the forefront of the movie. He wants us both to experience what it feels like to be in one of these cars hurtling along at superhuman speeds (via some thrilling direction and camera placements – he seems to have found new ways of showing cars racing, by sometimes putting the viewer almost under the vehicle, where we feel every bump and skid of the track) and to understand fully the death-defying dare-devilry of the drivers.
They drove, knowing full well that there was always a 20% chance of death; and they drove as though they had nothing to lose. Indeed, Howard suggests, that dimension of non-responsibility, was, as the story makes clear from the beginning, a mandatory.
We are introduced to both men as outsiders – men outside the familial embrace of ‘loved ones’. As Lauder himself says to his (long suffering) wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) “Happiness is the greatest danger. For then you have something to live for”. And it is indeed happiness that keeps him alive, but also happiness that it is ultimate undoing.
But what keeps him driven, is his uber alpha need to win, in particular to beat Hunt.
The symbiotic relationship of these two men is the dramatic engine of the movie. Howard takes liberty with reality by emphasizing their differences. Lauder is the thoughtful, contemptuous, controlled, un-liked Austrian. For him, winning is as much the result of science and strategy as brute force and speed. Hunt is the charismatic ladies-man; the swashbuckling, champagne swilling, joint toking daredevil.
This is the Nietzchean dichotomy of Apollo, god of the sun, dreams and wisdom and Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy and intoxication. For the Greeks, these two were essentially dimensions of one interlinked idea. And Howard offers us that: at a race in Nurburing, raced in appalling conditions, Lauder crashes and, nearly dying, suffers horrible burns. As he lies, bandaged and scarred in hospital, his ferocious will to stay alive is catalyzed by his refusal to accept defeat by Hunt. This Apollonian god of the sun rises like a Phoenix (to mix my myths) to challenge the Dionysian Hunt one last time. And Hunt, feeling responsible for the crash, needs his nemesis to fight one last time. A victory earned with an opponent in hospital or dead is a hollow victory.
And thus, both needed the other, both preparing to risk everything, Howard builds his story to this modern-day gunfight on the track. Here, racing (once again) in blinding rain, the whine of the F1 engines roaring in our ears, the director brings and keeps us at the edge of our seats as engagingly as any film in recent memory.
Or, maybe I’m just one of those for whom love of car is a mighty and enduring romance.
Of course, Howard, this exile from “Happy Days” is one of the best-loved director brands in Hollywood. He’s had a few downs (“The Dilemma” “The Da Vinci Code”) but he’s also had memorable triumphs (“Frost/Nixon”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “Apollo 13”, “Backdraft”). “Rush” clearly falls into this latter group.
Daniel Bruhl (Lauder) is a Spanish born German actor, who I first remembered in a small part in “The Bourne Ultimatum” (where he was Bourne’s lover’s brother). He had a bigger role in “Inglorious Basterds” and we’ll see him again soon enough in “The Fifth Estate”.
Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) was a pleasant surprise. This Australian has featured mainly in thuggish movies, where he’s the well-sculptured hunk (such as “Thor” and its many iterations and “Snow White and the Huntsman”). But here, he exudes a genuine big screen charisma, and certainly seems to have a lot more on offer than mere muscle.
Also nice to see, in an almost cameo role, Natalie Dormer as one of Hunt’s many lovers. She, some of you may remember is Margery Tyrell of “Game of Thrones” and was the scheming Anne Boleyn in “The Tudors”.
Rush to “Rush”, it’s worth the drive.