"Men love their women, but more than that, they love their cars."
Now relegated to just a footnote in history to all but the most passionate racing fans, the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt & Niki Lauda dominated headlines around the world for the middle years of the 1970s. What better subject for a writer like Peter Morgan to tackle than that of these dueling protagonists with his latest film Rush. Re-teaming with director Ron Howard after their 2008 awards' darling Frost/Nixon, Morgan has crafted an equally fascinating story of two men with seemingly nothing in common, other than an undying desire to win.
The story opens in 1970 when Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) & Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) are up and coming racers in the Formula Three class. Against the wishes of his family, Lauda buys his way into the Formula One world when he feels his talents can no longer be contained by a third class racing organization. Hunt continues working his way up the ladder until his financier Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) takes a page out of Lauda's book and buys Hunt into the Formula One world as well. Hunt is a maverick, living on the edge and constantly flirting with disaster, whereas Lauda is a by-the-book perfectionist, always seeking to make the most of every opportunity he's given.
After winning the World Championship in 1975, Lauda seems poised to dominate the sport for years to come. Hunt, on the other hand, finds himself without a sponsor and struggling to join a team for the 1976 season. When McLaren brings him aboard, he begins to pose the first significant threat to Lauda. Juxtaposing their on the track positions is the two men's love lives, with Lauda in a committed relationship with his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) and Hunt juggling multiple women at one time, often under the nose of his model wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde). As Hunt begins to gain on Lauda in the standings, one fateful race at the German Grand Prix changes the fates of both men forever.
While he's never been the flashiest or most lauded director in Hollywood, Howard has a workmanlike attitude that's gained him many admirers both in and out of the industry. His films are rarely cited as the best ever made, but he's never really made a terrible movie (yes, even The Grinch isn't terrible). It makes sense then that he would latch onto a character like Niki Lauda and his desire to be the best without ever really being anyone's favorite. Lauda seems tailor made to be the villain of a film like this, with such a dynamic presence like Hunt also on screen, but Howard is too good a director to let Lauda's faults weigh him down to the point of becoming an antagonist. You can't help but admire the man, even as he seems to be going out of his way to make himself unlikable, and that's what makes Rush as good a movie as it is; Howard's desire to keep both men on equal footing.
Howard's never been known for flashy visuals, but the racing scenes in this film are breathtaking and give the film an immediacy it wouldn't have had with a lesser director. It's some of the best work of his career, particularly with Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) behind the camera. The film's editing by Daniel P. Hanley, also an Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind, is equally brilliant, even when the pacing of the script threatens to bog down the whole affair. The middle portions of the film suffer from a bit too much lethargy, but the direction, camera work, editing & score by Hans Zimmer all keep things moving almost in spite of the script's desire to pause too much for unneeded reflection. This is almost a technically flawless film, and those elements go a long way towards making the film so good.
The performances in the film are equally outstanding, particularly from the two leads. Hemsworth follows through on all the promising talent he's shown in more overblown fare like Thor & Star Trek, and is as dynamic a screen presence as anyone else in his age range working right now. Bruhl is an actor we haven't seen much of, apart from small but memorable roles in Inglourious Basterds & The Bourne Ultimatum, but he is every ounce Hemsworth's equal and makes Lauda a fully formed character. The biggest downfall of the script, in a very similar way to Morgan's script for The Queen, is that outside of these two, there aren't really any characters of substance.
Lara is quite good as Lauda's wife, and McKay manages to steal a handful of laughs in a largely thankless role, but beyond that, there really aren't any standout supporting characters. One major gripe that needs to be addressed, however, is with the makeup choices made for Olivia Wilde's character. Whomever worked on her makeup needs to be tried for war crimes as they managed to turn one of the most attractive women working in film today into George Hamilton. She was so tan and her skin just looked like it was crying out for a good moisturizing. It's even odder since her character was a model who hocked skin care products, so I'm not sure if there was some sort of symbolic meaning to her makeup, but if there is, it's as big a failure as the symbolic caged birds that are featured prominently in several shots after Hunt loses his sponsorships.
Rush is a very good film that eludes greatness due to a handful of script miscalculations. It is technically brilliant and features two incredibly strong lead performances, but the script feels like it was a draft or two away from being great. There is still a lot here to recommend, even if you aren't a racing fan, which I most certainly am not, and I think that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives across the board. Even for a film where the characters are literally going in circles, the rivalry between these two men is enough to keep you glued to the screen.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]