Formula done well
Ron Howard’s retelling of historic racing rivalry is fast-moving and fun
The world of Formula One racing is the basis for some supercharged dramatic action in Rush, but what may look like a large-scale setting with epic potential is really just the framework for a two-person character study. The portraits that emerge are bold, dynamic, and maybe a bit overeager when it comes to drawing conclusions.
Based on real events, the story is scripted by Peter Morgan, the British writer whose skill in fashioning slightly fictionalized dramas from the lives of the powerful and famous has been well-established with The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Here he turns his talents to the politics of celebrity and the psychology of high-speed risk-takers, via the storied rivalry of world-class auto racers Niki Lauda from Austria and James Hunt from Great Britain on the 1976-77 Grand Prix circuit.
Both men are extraordinarily gifted auto racers, both are from wealthy backgrounds, and both seem obsessed with defeating the other. Beyond that, they are two entirely different types of competitive males. Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) is cold, intense, socially withdrawn, brilliantly analytical, mathematically precise; Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) is handsome, energetic, charming, relentlessly outgoing, and reckless in appetite and impulse.
These contrasts are a little bit too pat, but director Ron Howard and his actors bring them out with an attractive zest that is made all the more interesting by hints of rueful regret and half-hidden desperation. And their respective emotional limitations emerge predictably with the women they marry, but with unpredictable results—the heroically romantic Hunt wrecks a marriage that might easily have been saved, and the fiercely unromantic Lauda forms an unexpectedly deep bond with a wealthy jet-setter (Alexandra Maria Lara) who seems to genuinely understand and appreciate his peculiar genius.
Morgan’s script makes briskly efficient use of multiple bits of voice-over narration, from the two racers, of course, but also from an assortment of conveniently imagined racetrack announcers who summarize and editorialize, all in the name of hurrying the tale forward. The racing sequences are mostly a matter of propulsively edited fragments of action which show us very little of what is actually happening on the race track while also creating an abiding impression of high-speed peril and chaos.
Howard gets striking performances from both his leads, and the female characters—Lara as Marlene Lauda, Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife, and Natalie Dormer as one of Hunt’s more exuberant lovers—are all nicely and succinctly differentiated via performance, on-screen presence and implied “chemistry” in their pairings.
Howard and company have put it all in an engagingly efficient package. The end result is brisk, smart, fast-moving entertainment.