I don’t know a lot about automobiles. I drive a dirty PT cruiser with “wash me!” scribbled in dirt across the back window. My sole cultural reference point for race car driving is Talladega Nights, which I mistakenly rented my freshman year of college in lieu of Varsity Blues. Suffice to say, I didn’t know what to expect when I went to see Ron Howard’s new film, Rush.
I quickly learned that Rush is a movie not so much about cars as it is a film about two men who inhabit the world in such different ways that they spend an entire year trying to understand each other. James Hunt and Niki Lauda were competing world champions during the 1976 Formula One season, and if their mutual dislike and comparable skill wasn’t enough to make them famous adversaries, the extreme differences in their lifestyles was.
James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a charming ne’er-do-well. He’s lazy, an alcoholic and oversexed. In the first moment of the film, he stumbles into a hospital waiting room, barefoot and covered in blood. He’s just arrived from a nasty racing accident. A nurse takes him to an examination room to tend his wounds and wouldn’t you just know it—they end up having sex. Hunt lives for the moment, which is one of the reasons he’s such a good driver.
Niki Lauda (played with precision by Daniel Brühl) lacks Hunt’s instincts but makes up for them with hard work. Though he doesn’t have as many victories or sponsors as Hunt, Lauda buys his way onto a Formula One team and proceeds to demonstrate his expertise by outsmarting the team’s mechanics. Lauda can tell what’s wrong with a car just by sitting in it. In order to win, he has made it his business to know all the statistics, machinery and laws governing his sport.
From the moment these two men meet, they hate each other. But this hatred is mixed with fascination. Neither one quite understands why the other chooses to live his life the way he does.
What makes Rush special is that the conflict is not one between good and evil, but rather between two very different approaches to living one’s life. Though it would be easy to paint Hunt as an egotistical reprobate or Lauda as a heartless brainiac, Howard takes a more balanced, objective approach.
This objectivity means that there’s no attempt to sway the audience into siding with either Lauda or Hunt. In fact, frequently viewer sympathies shift from one man to the other, allowing a full investment in both characters.
Hemsworth and Brühl both deliver impressive, nuanced performances. Whether in Hunt’s nervous fiddling with his lighter or surreptitious vomiting before a race, or in Lauda’s cadence of speech and inability to make eye contact, the actors deliver a host of subtle gestures and small details that help create fully realized characters and carry Howard’s tale as effectively as the film’s many car explosions.
If Howard’s latest was just about cars, the film’s 123 minutes might prove a pretty tedious drive. It’s not just about cars, though—it’s about how we interact with people different from ourselves, what we learn from them, and how those experiences can enrich our lives. As a result, Rush is worth the trip.
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2013