Ron Howard’s Rush looks at two different, specific types of male arrogance. Like Frost/Nixon, Howard’s other collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan, this drama uses broad strokes for everything except the development of its two lead actors. This can be frustrating for two reasons: secondary characters, especially the women, drift into the background even though they don’t deserve it. More importantly, Rush is based on the rivalry between two real Formula 1 drivers, and it distorts their conflict so it fits an easily digestible Hollywood formula. These two issues notwithstanding, this is smart, exciting entertainment, with plenty to say about how ego coexists with success.
British racecar driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) knows he’s a sex symbol. It’s his greatest asset – he sleeps with a hospital nurse before she treats him – and also a source of frustration for his backers. Still, there’s no denying his talent, and he’s certain he’ll be champion until the Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) rises in the ranks. Whereas Hunt relies on raw skill, Lauda is a stern perfectionist, the sort of guy who can tell a car’s flaws just by sitting in it.
Their approach to racing also reflects their personalities: the other drivers like Hunt, in a superficial way at least, whereas Lauda’s fastidious nature earns him few friends. Morgan’s script broadly outlines the lives of Hunt and Lauda and supplies the drivers with wives (Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively), but spends most of his time on the 1976 racing season, when their rivalry was its most feverish. The stakes are always deadly – Hunt and Lauda always pause when they witness an accident – but their clashing egos amplify the danger.
It’s unclear whether it’s intentional, but Lauda is the more likable driver from the start. He’s got steel-trap mind of an engineer: I can’t help but feel respect, even admiration, for a man who correctly appraises everything he sees, including himself. In the first act, Morgan’s script tries to make Hunt the hero, but he’s confident in a boring way (like a high school football star, he’s got the looks and the talent). Still, Hemsworth’s performance is not without nuance. There are two key scenes where Hunt surprises himself – one where he argues with his wife and another where he defends Lauda – and Hemsworth shows the gears ticking underneath all that long blonde hair.
Brühl’s performance is also subtle: he surprises himself not with intelligence, but emotion. There’s a scene late in Rush where Lauda quietly speaks to his wife, and it’s the closest thing he has to a declaration of love. Brühl downplays the scene, of course, and it works because Morgan’s thoughtful script adds significant layers to the dialogue. As Rush draws to a perfunctory close, the drama draws us in with subtext. When Hunt and Lauda meet for the last time, there is mutual respect there and what they don’t say matters more than what they do. It would not work with weak actors, and the two leads are thankfully as smart as the real men they portray.
The only pity is that Morgan and Howard do not develop other relationships with the same attention to detail. Wilde has a scene or two where she’s angry with Hunt, but it’s not enough to explain why she suddenly cares about whether he’ll win the big race. You may recognize Lara as Hitler’s secretary from the World War 2 drama Downfall, and once again her performance amounts to little more than a concerned face. This is the fault of the script, not the actors, and I think Morgan would be the first to admit that everything but the rivalry is ancillary. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, except Morgan should abandon sub-plots entirely if only two characters interest him. Christian McKay gets a little attention as Lord Hesketh, Hunt’s backer who eventually loses his shirt on Formula 1, but Morgan reduces his final scene to a catchphrase.
You may have noticed I’ve barely mentioned Ron Howard, or the racing scenes themselves. That’s because anyone with an adequate level of skill could have directed Rush. Howard has the wherewithal to get out of the way and let Morgan’s script do the work. The racing scenes include the occasional stylized flourish, especially when one car overtakes another, yet they blur together into a series of roaring engines and chrome. Fast cars and explosions* define Formula 1 racing, but the real stakes are between two arrogant men, one who trusts himself too much and other who is smart enough not to trust anyone.
* There are two important moments where the racers argue over whether it’s too unsafe to race. Given how the arguments resolve themselves, it’s a missed opportunity that Morgan did not explore how, at the end of the day, the athletes are beholden to their sponsors.