I’ve never been a fan of car racing. I grew up in Chicago, so between Bears coach Mike Ditka and Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, I caught onto football and basketball instead. Rush isn’t as concerned with racing as it is in the contrary personalities of 1976 Formula 1 racing rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).
They attack their sport with completely contradictory approaches. Hunt drives by instinct and feel, anticipating and reacting to the road in the moment. Lauda, however, studies the track and redesigns his cars from the inside out. To Hunt, his sport is a battle for life and death akin to gladiatorial combat. For Lauda, it’s simply a business.
These approaches are echoed in the best rivalries of every sport. You see it every time Rex Ryan’s bipolar New York Jets meet Bill Belichick’s hyper-logical New England Patriots, or in Mark Cuban’s flamboyant ownership role with the Dallas Mavericks versus the measured management of the San Antonio Spurs. Heck, you can even see it in some working relationships – think Kirk and Spock.
Here, Hemsworth essentially plays a drunker version of his Avengers alter-ego Thor. He’s strong and manly, women fall at his feet, and despite his alcoholism, brawling, and infidelity, he has the natural, winking charisma to make us like him for it. It’s not that Hemsworth is incapable of doing something truly dramatic; it’s that no filmmaker has taken that chance on him yet.
Bruhl is the one who steals the show as Lauda. Immediately awful and unbearable as a human being, Lauda’s logical and risk-averse approach to life and racing reveal a bullied and sheltered man without the looks or social graces to easily connect with those around him.
As Rush plays on, director Ron Howard seems to realize who the better actor and story belong to – it’s Lauda’s life put front and center.
Rush is ham-handed in the way it tells its story. Hunt’s and Lauda’s domestic lives play out like soap opera highlights. The races are all given to us in montage form. There’s even one sequence that’s a montage of all the race montages. Hunt’s and Lauda’s early rivalry boils down to Hunt calling Lauda rat-faced and Lauda cussing Hunt out.
Ron Howard has never been the bravest director, nor the most original or unique. He finds good stories and knows how to focus in on the best performance and make a moment in time feel authentic. He can frame a scene to draw out its human elements, but doesn’t always know how to present actors as real humans.
A marital argument between Hunt and supermodel wife Suzy Miller sports some good insults, for instance, but without a more seasoned actor to hold the scene down, Hemsworth and Olivia Wilde seem like they’re performing overwrought dinner theater. Yet, Rush equals more than the accumulation of storytelling shortcuts and missed opportunities.
Rush is a racing movie, but more than that, it’s a movie about how you live life. For instance, I’m frustrated with the inconsistencies I deal with at my weekday job. I badly want to give in to the Hunt side of my personality, to have a verbal confrontation and fire-and-brimstone my way to satisfaction. I almost always pull a Lauda, however – I know what’s most profitable for me is to let the insults roll off and to treat disagreements with management diplomatically, even if it makes me unhappy to force an anxious part of myself underneath the surface.
Hunt seems like the happy one, though. Even Lauda at one point tells his wife, “Happiness is the enemy.” Hunt was happy and died young. Lauda was unhappy but wildly successful. I don’t honestly know what that tells me – maybe that’s why they make understanding girlfriends and wise parents.
Both men were warriors, so maybe that’s the lesson: don’t give up. Rush isn’t the kind of great film that will keep finding its way into your thoughts weeks from now, but it is a satisfying one.
Rush is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images, and brief drug use. Why any of it’s needed is beyond me. I can’t think of a recent film that could more easily be edited to PG-13 without losing any real content.