What separates Ron Howard's latest film RUSH from so many other sports-related docudramas (whether they're based on a true story, as this one is, or not) is that you could remove all of the Formula 1 racing sequences and still have a really strong film, thanks in large part to a smart, interesting screenplay from Peter Morgan (FROST/NIXON, THE QUEEN). Am I saying the races aren't wonderfully re-created and thrilling? Of course not. But the heart and soul of Rush isn't the racing; it's the contentious but respectful relationship between 1970s-era rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, at his most swaggerific) and the highly disciplined Austrian Niki Luada (Daniel Brühl of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS).
The film makes the interesting point that these two men could not have lived their lives more differently, but their careers were locked together for many years as they often found themselves fighting for points on Grand Prix racetracks. As much as Howard is known for being a stylistic chameleon, able to adapt his style to fit whatever story he is telling, I tend to get a little giddy when he dips his toes in the R-rated pool. And with healthy doses of nudity (done in large part to illustrate Hunt's reputation as a ladies' man) and a certain amount of unflinching violence (Formula 1 races do have their accidents), Howard has made a solidly mature film that often feels not only like it was set in the 1970s, but shot then as well.
Englishman Hunt is shown rising through the ranks of racing early in the film, but these scenes are largely there to establish other traits about the man: his recklessness, his ways with the women and his beyond-cocky attitude (well-earned) about his abilities behind the wheel. Lauda on the other hand bought his way into Formula 1, but again, not without talent to back him up. He's a numbers man; if he doesn't see the percentage chance of him winning running his favor, he simply won't race. He's also a brilliant mechanic and engineer, and he effectively rebuilt his cars several times over to make them lightweight and perfectly aerodynamic.
It's little more than a sideplot, but I enjoyed seeing the section of the film involving the whirlwind romance and eventual marriage Hunt had with model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, who actually does look remarkably like Miller). She inspired him to become a better racer, but in the end, she left him for Richard Burton and has gone in the history books as the woman who broke up Burton and Elizabeth Taylor once and for all. It's a fun bit of movie-star footnoting, but it breaks up the main story nicely. Meanwhile, Lauda's decision in picking a woman to marry seems as much of a calculated decision as the ones he makes about his car. Still, it's his love of Marlene Lauda (Alexandra Maria Lara) that steers him toward not taking unnecessary risks and driving smarter as well as faster.
I don't think I'm ruining any part of this story in saying that at one point in the film Lauda is involved in a horrible accident that almost kills him and certainly takes him out of racing for a time, just when it appears he is poised to be the world champion for the first time. But in a somewhat remarkable (and completely true) admission, Lauda says that while he was out of commission, seeing Hunt catching up to his point score inspired him to recover and rehab faster and get back to racing so as not to lose. And as much as the original accident was partially Hunt's fault (he insisted the race go on despite a heavy downpour), he also thanked him for motivating him to get out of the hospital faster than anyone expected.
The best scenes in RUSH are the ones where the two men are together in conversation. Each never misses a chance to razz the other, but they also encourage each other to consider living their respective lives a different way. Hunt reminds Lauda to have fun every so often, while Lauda advises Hunt to take a more measured approach to his hard living off the track and risky behavior on it. There's a competitive, brotherly affection between them that Hemsworth and Brühl capture nicely, and if there's one thing I wanted more of out of this film, it was more scenes between the two. They understand that their relationship and rivalry forces them to be better at what they do to match and keep up with the other.
And what about those racing scenes? Well, they're great, but Howard doesn't drag them out or bog us down with too much detail about strategies. If your theater has a good sound system, you should expect your seat to rumble a great deal; you can almost see the screen vibrate from the excessive speeds on display. And during the races where rain is a factor, seeing the racers' POV of what it's like speeding down a road with so little visibility is terrifying.
RUSH is going to pull in a great deal of its audience because of the racing element, which is great. But I think those people are going to leave remembering the story to two men in a unique club who defy death every time they get behind the wheel, and as much as they want to beat the other guy, they also rely on each other to survive. Howard pulls no punches regarding the risks or the raw thrill these drivers get when they hurl down these roads and unbelievable speeds. It's that rare sports movie that truly succeeds at putting us inside the heads of two very different drivers and experience what they do through their eyes. RUSH is an unqualified success as both character study and thrill ride.