Silver Screen: Rush ****
The rivalry between European racecar drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt becomes fodder for Ron Howard’s Rush, a better-than-average sports movie just as concerned with life off the track as on it.
It’s Chris Hemsworth’s face flashed all over the promotional materials and previews-- understandable given that one of the movie’s two leads happens to have headlined his own superhero movie and appeared in one of the most financially successful movies of all time. Though Hemsworth’s Hunt is the face of Rush, the movie itself belongs to Daniel Bruhl’s Lauda, a restrained, calculating German whose intuitive understanding of machines is matched only by his cluelessness with actual human beings.
Lauda is presented as a man almost devoid of passion but craving control. He’s self-assured and relentlessly honest, which provides some the most entertainingly abrasive dialogue this side of Jesse Eisenberg’s riff on Mark Zuckerberg. Screenwriter Peter Morgan gives Lauda some wonderfully brutal quips, but as entertaining as his tactless behavior is to watch for an audience, it wins him few friends in the racing world.
Hemsworth’s Hunt is established as yin to Lauda’s yang. Hunt’s a British playboy who spurned his wealthy family’s plans for him in favor of philandering and fast cars. His easy charm, nicely captured by a better-than-ever Hemsworth, makes him a fan favorite, even if he’s perennially chasing after the more villainous-seeming Lauda.
What Rush does so well is to never favor either man, but examine them as a study in contrasts. They’re both persuasive in their philosophies of life and racing, but also limited by them. Their starkly contrasting styles make them natural nemeses, and their mutual respect for one another only stokes the fires of envy.
Speaking of fire: Lauda notes in a voiceover during the opening minutes of the film that in every season there are twenty-five drivers on the Formula One circuit, and, at least back in the 1970s, two men died on average each year. It seems inevitable from the outset, then, that the risk of the sport will catch up with one of our two champions, and so it does, but the calamity becomes not the tragic climax but the hinge on which the story turns. It’s wonderfully executed, and more often than not Howard is able to steer clear of sports-movie clichés.
The purpose of many a sports movie is to inspire, and that’s certainly the case with Rush. Moreover, Rush is a movie about inspiration, what drives men to risk everything to reach the highest level of their field, and the ways in which they find continued inspiration at the top. The bookish Lauda speaks the key line when he relates an aphorism to Hunt: “A wise man learns more from his enemies than a fool does from his friends.” The pinnacle of performance can’t be reached without some external motivator, and in that way Hunt and Lauda were never really enemies at all. Howard finds both the fun and the fury in their early squabbling and doesn’t oversentimentalize their slow-dawning mutual understanding. In doing so, Howard reaches a deeper understanding of their relationship. Rush is, above all else, a love story about competition.
This is Howard’s best work in ages. It’s a full reversal from the chest-thumping, flag-waving schmaltz of the god-awful Cinderella Man, the faux intellectualism of A Beautiful Mind, or the cash-grab pointlessness of The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and the live-action Grinch debacle. The racing sequences, though there aren’t many of them, are kinetic and thrilling, and the off-the-track drama is nicely shot and crisply paced. There are occasional distractions-- Olivia Wilde does a fine job, but her scenes amount to very little-- and the bookending voiceover narration is artless and unnecessary. Rush also ends with the cheesiest final shot in recent memory; it would be just as subtle if the screen would have frozen on Lauda and Hunt leaping into the air, locked in a high-five. Still, Rush is a solid picture, both exciting and substantial, an ode to antagonism.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.