Does This Film Earn Its Racing Stripes?

Director: RON HOWARD/2013

The classic 1970’s Formula One racing rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda comes to life in director Ron Howard’s film Rush.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays James Hunt, a British racer who spends most of his time off of the track bedding beautiful women and living life to the full.  Seen as a risky driver who is willing to push the limits for the glory it brings him, Hemsworth’s Hunt is addicted to the rush that comes with being one of the best racers in the golden-age of Formula One racing.  Drivers in this age of the sport are treated like gods, and Hunt stands above the rest, even though he is not necessarily the most acclaimed driver.

While racing in lower racing tiers, Hunt unknowingly attracts the jealousy of fellow racer Niki Lauda, played wonderfully by Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds).  Bruhl’s Lauda is a quiet, unassuming personality that is methodical and ruthless as he seeks to ascend to the top of the main Formula One racing circuit.  While Hunt gets some victories and all the attention in the lower racing tier they are racing in, Lauda is busy altering the design of the Formula One race cars that he drives, in order to improve its speed and performance. When both drivers ascend to the elite racing level of Formula One, their racing rivalry pushes each to reach for greatness both on and off the track.

Ron Howard has captured the look and feel of the 1970’s racing scene, brought it to life and he makes it seem both relevant and exciting for an audience that may have no knowledge of the sport.  For non-racing fans, this film is grounded in a personal story of rivals, competition, love, and passion.  For those coming to the theater to see the cars, Howard’s camera puts you right into the action.  The cars in the film’s non-stunt scenes are the real deal.  Collectors from all over the world brought their authentic Formula One racers from that era to the film set and allowed Ron Howard and crew to film them revving their engines while lining up in their pole positions, pulling the cars into the pits, and more.  The sound of the engines alone shook the theater and dropped you right into the action.

As Formula One has not ever been as popular in America as it is in Europe, Howard brings the prestige and honor of the sport from its 1970 heyday and dares us to immerse ourselves in the nuances and strategy of the real sport, while providing us a story that shows why it mattered then, and how it might matter to us today. The sport will see an increased interest from Americans following this film, and due to the ever expanding popularity of other racing circuits such as NASCAR. Foriegn markets who are more familiar with the sport of Formula One Racing, will be more eager to see the film because of their love of the sport, than Americans will be, in general.

Another great touch that Ron Howard provides us in Rush is a very detailed story of what took place off the track by having the real Niki Lauda serving as a consultant on the film.  Niki Lauda’s journey of being a methodical and rigid driver to embracing life and learning how to truly love another in his personal life stands in stark contrast to Hunt’s decadent, hammer-of-the-gods, Led Zeppelin-like lifestyle.  And as you watch these two men’s journey, you get the sense that the scenes aren’t simply the by-product of the script but are actual moments from Lauda’s recollections.

Chris Hemsworth, through his portrayal of James Hunt, begins a real campaign to establish himself as serious actor capable of carrying a film beyond his Marvel superhero franchise.  As endearing as Hemsworth’s portray of Hunt is, the real payoff from this film is Daniel Bruhl who is given a very rich character transformation throughout the film.  He is able to embody different shades of the complexity that is Niki Lauda.  We see him as a young man driven to methodically climb the ladder to being the best racer in the world.  We also get to experience his tenderness as he learns to open up his heart to a love that makes him confront his dedication to winning at all costs.  His pursuit of love is also the polar opposite of Hunt’s shallow conquests. Lauda also endures tragedy in the film that would break most people experiencing what he faces.

If there are any weak points in this film, it is the underdeveloped character arc of Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller, Hunt’s eventual wife, and her very limited screen time.  Suzy’s relationship with James Hunt is given center stage at one point in the film, but the complexity of the relationship and how it affects Hunt is never fully explored as she is sidelined for much of the film to make room for the racing rivalry.  I get the feeling that some of their romantic relationship and its fallout probably impacted Hunt greatly and carried over to his rivalry with Lauda.  Unfortunately, Suzy Miller exits Hunt’s life in the movie in much of the same way as all of the one-night stands we saw Hunt engage in.

Rush is a first and foremost a drama that is supported with the backdrop of Formula One racing and not the other way around.  In many ways, this is the most adult-themed film of Ron Howard’s career in that it is simultaneously engaging, gritty, sexy, and authentic to the time it portrays.  Its subject matter, like the tracks being driven on, is dangerous and risky.  Despite being known for such fan-favorites as Apollo 13A Beautiful Mind,Angels & DemonsArrested Development, and The Grinch, this may prove to be Howard’s best film to date, and one of his most balanced.

Ultimately, Rush doesn’t seek to present the audience with a message, or a moral lesson.  Instead it simply tells the story of two men driven by passion to win and live life to the full. We also have the pleasure of witnessing how they drove each other in those pursuits.  Rush provides a strong story, roaring engines, fantastic racing, and a window into the golden-era of a sport that will probably never be duplicated again.