I used to be “into” Formula One in my younger years. It was one of few interests that myself and my sister shared, and we would often watch the Grand Prix’s on a Sunday, back in the days of Damon Hill, the Schumacher brothers, Team Jordan and Mika Hakkinen. I don’t quite know what it is about the sport. Maybe it’s just that it is as big a test of individual mettle combined with teamwork as anywhere else in the sporting world, all wrapped around some of the most enthralling machines ever built.
Formula One is about good pit stops, the right tires, fuel management. But it is also a thrilling test of bravado. No other kind of racing really captures that, of seeing whether one person in the middle of this powerful piece of motorised mechanics has the guts to go for the pass on a tight corner, knowing that the slightest wrong move could result in a spinning maelstrom of metal, injury and even death. Such an environment easily begets intense rivalries that are as entertaining to watch as they must be visceral to feel.
Rush is an attempt to tell that kind of story, focusing on what might be the sport’s most famous rivalry of its most famous season.
Sports movies are a difficult sub-genre to do well. I could only name a handful of them that I can actually say I enjoyed thoroughly. Unlike so many other genres and types, sports movies require the director and his crew to actually try and find a way to bring something deeper to the facade – no good sports movie is actually about a sport, if that makes sense, it has to be something greater wrapped around a sport. This is incredibly difficult to do correctly. Most of the time, its only possible to do it with an individual focus – look up any top ten lists of sports movies and I guarantee at least half of them will involve boxing or something similar. Rush is no exception to this rule.
In the world of 1970s motorsport, the best can have money, women and success, but death is all too frequently found beyond the next bend. Into this arena come two individuals who grow to dominate the scene: Peter Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a devil-may-care, womanizing, drug snorter who typifies the 1970s English sporting playboy and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a calculating, unsocial, but immanently confident Austrian. Polar opposites, and urged on by their distaste but grudging respect for the other, the two are at the heart of FI’s legendary 1976 season where the greatest triumph was easily matched by the greatest disaster.
This is a brilliant movie, and I do not say that lightly. I went into Rush not exactly knowing what to expect, with only an overly long and overly detailed trailer to go on.
But I was not disappointed. Rush a truly excellent movie. From its opening flash forward to the start of the 1976 German Grand Prix, right down to Niki Lauda’s final reflective narration on the events that the movie depicts, Rush grabs your attention and your interest and never lets it go.
The framing of the narrative is wonderful, a duality that begins in the early minutes, which spends equal time with the two eponymous legends of the racing circuit. This is a film about a rivalry, and that rivalry is laid out in stark terms: everything that one of them does is contrasted and compared to the other. The first hour is an enthralling set-up to that 1976 season, as we follow Hunt and Lauda’s pre-F1 lives, their family backgrounds, their breakthrough into racing, their loves, their disappointments, their failures.
The trailers might fool you into thinking this is a story primarily about Hunt – they were bound to spend more time promoting the bigger movie star role I suppose – but in truth this is more Lauda’s tale, at least in so far as so much of it is seen through his eyes, especially the ending. This goes from the very first shots, where Lauda narrates briefly how he and Hunt have gotten to this point, copying each others tyre strategies before a race, and with Lauda about to go chasing after his rival, driving “like an asshole” – the one thing that he tries never to do. That’s sets the scene for a back and forth and personal enmity based almost entirely on how one is influenced and changed by the other. Having Lauda as the general narrator and master of the films pace is a good choice, since he is the exact kind of character – more mindful of details, more analytic – to fulfil that role over Hunt, who you get the impression would forget the guy he insulted yesterday.
Director Ron Howard effortlessly guides us through the build up phase, illustrating the difference between the two men starkly, but never leaving us in any doubt as to their respective suitability to be in the cockpit of their machines. There are similarities – both come from privileged families but reject the status quo expected of them for example – but there are more divides. Hunt seems to barely care about what he is doing sometimes, driving recklessly, joking absentmindedly with his mechanic crew and more concerned with showing off for whatever girl is present than anything. Lauda calculates, walking the tracks before a race, aiding in the design of his own car and ignoring any distracting pleasures. The difference between them could not be illustrated better than when they first meet each other: Hunt throws up after a night of debauchery while Lauda diligently prepares for the race ahead with professionalism. But when the race is at its height, Hunt’s ability to push himself harder and risk a crash – the “20%” margin that Lauda refuses to go past – wins him the race while the Austrian is left facing the wrong way. This begins their rivalry, and it was framed just perfectly to mark the two men out against each other.
Both men get into F1 in different, relatively negative ways. Hunt bankrupts his sponsor with his crazy dream of racing in the competition without any advertising, while Lauda takes out a risky loan and simply buys his way into the sport. This demonstrates the commitment that both me have to achieving a place in that higher pantheon, while also, again, showing up the key differences in both men’s personalities: Hunt, who does so without any cares and gets burned for it later, and Lauda who orchestrates a position whereby he will quickly become invaluable to his team owner, something he gladly plays upon.
Then there is the two’s relationship with women. Hunt goes through them quickly, disposable pleasures that are little more than temporary distractions from his real passion. Lauda struggles to break the ice with anybody, perhaps too obsessed with his singular world view that he must do whatever he can, and use whoever he can, to get ahead.
That would be fine enough, but the duality of narrative and the sense that both men are driven by their rivalry is expertly weaved into this aspect of their characters too. Hunt, seeing the success that Lauda achieves, tries to get more serious with his racing, and decides that “settling down” might be the answer, an experiment that ends in disaster. Lauda is goaded by Hunt (and others) into confronting his own unsociable tendencies, eventually leading into a loving relationship with his wife Marlene, one that surprises him with the amount of happiness he gains from it. And the dual roads are taken even further by Howard, who depicts Hunt as only getting back into his best form when he resumes his womanising free of his poisonous marriage, while Lauda breaks free from his constant focus on calculation when it comes to safety by thinking of his wife – and what he stands to lose by continuing.
Both of these romantic sub-plots fulfil the role that romantic sub-plot in a movie like this should achieve, telling us more about the two main characters and showing them evolving as men. I suppose I preferred Lauda’s just a little bit out of a personal preference, I thought it was just genuinely sweeter (and I think I identify more with Lauda), though that is not to say that Hunt’s rapid proposal to his would-be spouse did not have its attraction as a spectacle.
Female characters have a role to play here, but a limited one. I can be more forgiving of this apparent flaw for a film like this, where the stated focus from the very beginning is on Hunt and Lauda as opposed to their spouses. Everything that Suzy and Marlene do or are seen doing in the film is supposed to be a reflection on their other halves: we see such things, naturally, through their eyes, whether it is Hunt’s false cheer after his divorce or Lauda’s pained inability to express himself to his wife before his wedding. Suzy and Marlene are interesting characters in their own right, both having a very tangible impact on the two main leads, and I could certainly have tolerated a little bit more of both of them. But for a movie like this, I am willing to accept that the wives have to take a back seat for the sake of what the film is actually about.
The other female involvement is through a few fairly adult sex scenes featuring Hemsworth and a succession of beauties (Oh, and one fairly unnecessary topless shot for Alexandra Lara, which was surprising). The sex scenes are fine, and serve a purpose in the plot, to show Hunt for the man he is when it comes to women – someone who wants more, more, more, but only as far as his bed. So, while somewhat gratuitous in nature, and maybe a bit too lengthy in the first instance with Dormer, I can appreciate that Howard was trying to do, to immediately give the impression of what Hunt was like in his not-so-private affairs.
I think one of the things that I must enjoyed about Rush was the fact that, by the end of the movie, there is no hero and no villain, with none of the two serving as a protagonist or an antagonist. It would be easy to make a film like this where one or the other is portrayed as the “good guy”. Chris Hemsworth could be the fun loving driver who appreciates the emotion of the sport, beset by the conniving, rule obsessed Austrian. Daniel Brühl could be the hard, working dedicated professional, trying to stop the sport from being tarnished by the disgraceful antics of his English counterpart.
Howard takes the story in a more layered, and infinitely better place than that, showing each of these men as real, three-dimensional characters, whose flaws intersect with their positives, who make mistakes, who go too far, who suffer from their failures. I find it so refreshing to be offered a film like that, where a rivalry is portrayed in such a way, with nothing good or evil about it in a traditional sense. That makes it harder to side with one above the other, which aids greatly in the creation of tension and commitment to the story that Howard is trying to tell. Who do you really want to win by the end?
Half way through Rush, I was already beginning to formulate thoughts on an apparent flaw, which was that the rivalry wasn’t being developed enough onscreen, with very little actual interaction between the main players. They trade bitter insults in a lower tier, then don’t actual exist in the same scene for years of story time.
But by the end of it, especially with the final meeting between the two, it is made clear that it doesn’t matter. No dialogue between the two full of barbs and put downs is needed to create the sense of rivalry, because Hunt recklessly gets involved in F1 too early just because Lauda “bought” his way in, an act which was, for Lauda, partially inspired by the way Hunt treated him in F3. The rivalry already exists, and every action taken by Hunt or Lauda is driven by it, even if the two are not directly competing with each other. By the end of the movie, both men make it clear to each other that their will to win was driven by the other, and the brief verbal insults were only part of it – the simple vision of seeing someone so radically different succeed despite those differences is what did it. Hunt see’s Lauda, with his repressed social instinct and percentile approach and is driven to drive crazier and get himself more heavily involved in the title race. Lauda see’s the reckless Hunt winning “his points” while in a hospital bed, and rushes back into the cockpit rather than be a continuing spectator anymore. You don’t need dialogue between the two to create that sense of tension, of interpersonal bitterness.
The ending scenes wrap it all up wonderfully, adding a great sensation of retroactive respect between the two men, of an elder Lauda looking back with fondness at one might have been one of the most hateful feuds in racing history – exactly what you expect from an older man looking back into his past. That’s not to say that such feelings of respect are false, but it was important I think to leave that out until the end – better for such a self realisation to come at that point, that maybe it wasn’t so bad having an enemy after all, and maybe that enemy wasn’t so very bad himself.
In the end, I liked how Rush portrays both men getting what they want out of the story, even if they take a roundabout way of getting there. Hunt gets his world title and lasting glory, even if his personal enjoyment of it is fleeting, the kind of aspiration that perfectly suits him. Lauda learns that there is more to life than racing, getting ahead and calculation, choosing a life with his wife over the possibility of championship glory in Japan, mixed with the very real possibility of injury or death. Hunt never does much more in F1 and dies tragically young, while Lauda has to live with his loss in the sports most famous season. But despite this, they are still both champions, eloquently put in the title of the credits music: “Lost But Won”. In a film like this, where such pain has been taken to make both main characters endearing to the audience, I think that the production team has done very well in crafting a conclusion aimed to give a sense of satisfaction as to the fate of both men, to make both of them into “winners” in our eyes, as simple as giving them both a tangible, but evolving motivation, and seeing them realise it through adversity. The ending of Rush is just that: satisfying, in a way that so many other films are not.
Rush has a thrilling pace to it, over two hours but none of it ever really dragging. The high thrills are spaced fairly evenly, with most of them left for the second hour and the recapping of the 1976 season, but there is plenty to take note of in the first sixty minutes. Howard does well to create great scenes and moments of interest, hooking in the audience with a great use of the flash-forward trope at the beginning, and following it up with the right mixture of brief racing scenes, interspersed with the upward journey of the two title characters. Howard really knows how to build something, and uses that first hour to really set up the 1976 centrepiece really well. By the time the two are competing against each other directly in that season, he has made sure that we are not only invested in the fortunes of both characters, but that we have never once felt that the arrival of these more action packed sequences was overdue. Seeing the two men’s respective attitude towards women change and evolve was just as fascinating as the actual Grand Prix’s, scenes filled with wonderful back and forth, and that is just one example.
There are so many great scenes here. Hunt mixing show and tell while narrating how women fall over themselves to be with him. Lauda dictating new contract terms to his boss days after joining the team, and doing so with the most endearing confidence. Hunt’s brutally vicious fight with his despairing wife. Lauda waxing poetically on the nature of weakness and happiness on his honeymoon. The vote on the Nürburgring race and Lauda’s gutted reaction to his lack of popularity. The Austrian trying to put on a helmet again after his accident. Hunt beating an assholish journalist out a sense of personal shame. Lauda pulling in at Japan and going straight to his wife. Hunt’s final justification for his lifestyle to Lauda. Lauda’s closing narration on Hunt, tinged with regret and a subtle message of praise.
These are just some of the multitude of fantastic scenes that Rush contains, every one of them worthy to be called some of the best of the year. That pacing, that balance of the film, is just found perfectly, with a place for everything and everything in its place, making Rush a wonderfully well rounded experience for any viewer.
Did I mention tension? I went into Rush with the advantage of not knowing the outcome of the 1976 season, which presumably meant that I could greater appreciate the tension-filled way that the latter half of the movie plays out, from Lauda’s horrific crash at Nürburgring to the final race in Japan. I thought that Howard did a masterful job of creating tension out of things that are of historical record (I knew about Lauda’s accident, and still thought the scene was terrifically tense and nerve-wracking), much like Ben Affleck did so successfully with last years Argo. I was on the edge of my seat for Lauda’s’ Monza return, or for Hunt’s final few laps in Japan, not just because I wanted to see who won, but because the atmosphere had been created that made this contest one that was, potentially, life or death.
Howard, through the right cuts, the right music, the right dialogue and the requisite amount of work put in beforehand, successfully created that feeling, and Rush is a far better film for it. It is something else, how seeing Lauda’s pull in during the last race can create a sense of catharsis in the viewer after wondering, nervously, if he was about to get himself horrible injured chasing the dream, and how the same effect can be mirrored in the finale of Hunt’s race as he comes close to destroying himself making up the last few places, and even when he crosses the finish line we still have to wait those last few agonising moments for the scoreboard to be corrected. That I was so affected by finding which of the two actually won the 1976 world title speaks volumes. It is a feeling I have rarely gotten for many movies this year.
Look at my top five to the right. Aside from Rush, I knew the endings of all the others before entering the theatre, out of historical knowledge or experience with the source material. It didn’t ruin those movies, but it might be said that it took just a little something away from them. Rush, despite having an historical basis, has no such problems, confirmed by my girlfriend, as in to motorsports as I am, who was fully aware of how the film had top end, but still found it as enthralling as I did.
I believe some people have indicated that Rush has fictionalised elements of the Hunt/Lauda rivalry, portraying them as more antagonistic then they actually were. This might be true (though Lauda was involved intimately in the production it must be said) but in the end it doesn’t matter. See my comments on artistic license and entertainment in my review of Zero Dark Thirty. If that movie got it horrendously wrong when it comes to the balance of accuracy and enjoyment, Rush gets it very right, albeit on a slightly less serious score. It might not match reality exactly (what film ever does?) but the story told here is still fantastic on its own merits.
It’s just another part of what makes Rush a sublime experience. Howard really has knocked it out of the park with the plot of this one, blending in three dimensional characters with realistic motivations, slick action sequences with story driven dialogue and tension filled finales with the appropriate amount of set-up.
Chris Hemsworth is probably never going to be seen as a great actor of his time, but I think that he is perfectly cast here, in a role that plays to his strengths. There is plenty of pre-banishment Thor in this guy, in the cockiness, the bravado, the shameless smile whenever he does anything to piss someone off. There is plenty of the Home and Away style soap star too, in his vicious arguments with his wife and the reaction to various drama. Hemsworth is able to fill that role really well. He both looks and acts the playboy, the previously mentioned archetype embodied by people like Hunt in that era, along with the likes of George Best for example.
His Hunt simply doesn’t seem to care for large parts of the movie, which would be irritating if Hemsworth didn’t imbue him with that most vital aspect: charm. His Hunt is so charming in that 1970s way, that we can buy how he gets on with women, why his pit crew all seem to worship him, and how he still somehow manages to make a reasonable connection in the form of his wife. He has an irrepressible swagger at nearly all times. Hemsworth isn’t just that of course, and I really liked how he was able, when the occasion demanded, to show a slightly softer or harder side over the carefree norm.
The scene where he tries to win his wife back only to change into the joking playboy again for the press was a well executed turnaround, a scene framed just right to show the inner turmoil that Hunt faced throughout his life, that he was so successful as hiding, maybe better displayed in his sheer desperation to get back into the car when his first gravy train runs out. Hunt also has a guilty side after the Nürburgring disaster, which Hemsworth is able to show off in effective fashion in the form of a beating delivered to a journalist asking nasty question of Lauda, better than the more open admission of culpability to Lauda a scene earlier.
Hemsworth’s delivery was crucial in making that feeling. And the hardness, in his truly gut wrenching verbal tirade against his wife in their living room, was also a stand-out moment for Hemsworth. His accent is probably a bit off, but I never found that jarring or a deficiency in his performance.
The final shots of Hemsworth’s Hunt are of the smiling, devil-may-care driver, off for, presumably, another drink, drugs and sex fuelled escapade, having done everything that he set out to do with his career. The candle that burns brightest, burns twice as fast, and when Lauda states that Hunt’s death at 45 did not make hum surprised, “only sad”, it is a feeling that Hemsworth has managed to place into the hearts of the audience too. Hunt was a flamboyant, larger than life figure in the sport, and Hemsworth has done him, all his greatness and all his flaws, a good service.
I personally think that he is matched and bettered by Daniel Brühl though. I’ve only ever seen Brühl is one other film, in his excellent turn as Fredrick Zoller in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. I think Brühl actually had a harder job than Hemsworth to pull off. Hemsworth had played someone like Hunt before, which stood to him. Brühl has to play someone totally against his former type (or so I have read) and do it with a drastic change in accent, trying to accurately recreate a very particular way of speaking and demeanour.
Brühl succeeds in that superbly, taking the person of Niki Lauda and recreating him to an astonishing degree, his clipped manner of speaking, his general attitude and his relationship with everyone around him. I use the word “calculating” a lot to describe Lauda here, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean that in a negative way: Brühl creates the visage of a man who is simply always calculating – the chances of a crash, the risk of even getting into a cockpit, the decision to get married – and defines his life by those calculations. His Lauda is an intelligent mathematician, who plans everything out as best he can and flounders when he is put into a position where he has to pull a Hunt and improvise. Sometimes he swims – such as when, good naturedly goaded by his future wife on the speed his is driving her car on a country road, he accelerates and weaves around traffic to impress her, doing so with the happiest smile on his face, like a man who has cut loose for the first time in years. Sometimes he sinks – like when he delayed in a pit lane in Germany, and drives so recklessly afterward that his car pulls itself apart trying to catch up with Hunt. In other ways, he does calculate in a devious sense: you can tell that he is playing on Hunt’s insecurities when he basically blames him for the Nürburgring accident at Monza, when in reality Lauda was as guilty as anyone due to his erratic driving.
Brühl shows off Lauda’s determination constantly, from breaking out from under his families thumb, to manoeuvring around his new F1 boss for a better contract (though not maliciously, by proving he’s worth more), to his constant will to win, especially over the aggravating Hunt. That determination is his key characteristic, which is flipped around close to the end, when he is determined not to do the expected thing, and risk his life in the chase for the title.
Brühl’s real gift is probably personifying a man like Lauda, a very non-emotive individual the vast majority of the time, and somehow making him likable. Yes, he doesn’t smile, and he’s frequently bitter and he’s a stickler for the rules, but when he gets married you don’t feel like it is a strange kind of union – Lauda shows his affection for his wife his way. Their honeymoon is a situation so bizarrely happy for Lauda that it actually tears him up inside, and makes him question whether it is worthwhile given the effect it might have on his drive to succeed, a scene that might have been the only moment when Brühl maybe went a bit too far with the drama, framed as staring off into the distance. Brühl shows his anger only rarely but is venomous when it comes out, and he is desperate to stand above men like Hunt, to make them think that their insults – like the common “rat” description applied to Lauda – don’t actually bother him, something that Brühl manages to portray it just the right way, a too eager declaration to be fully believable.
Brühl’s best moments are probably the post-accident scenes, as Lauda struggles through his treatments, reinserts himself into the racing scene and renews his rivalry with Hunt on very different terms. Brühl has to do all this in a suddenly added prosthetic, which just makes his performance more applause worthy.
Niki Lauda has been done a good service by Brühl’s portrayal, which mimics the mannerisms of the Austrian perfectly, and adds enough heart to the character to endear him to the audience, perhaps even more than Hemsworth does for Hunt.
Olivia Wilde is Suzy Miller, the women who falls for Hunt’s charms and marries him, only to become quickly disillusioned with his unchanging lifestyle. She does fine, but every scene she is in becomes dominated by Hemsworth. She’s a sort of socialite, a sophisticated beauty product model, who is the exact wrong fit for Hunt, a fact that plays itself out really well in their respective performances and back and forth. Wilde’s Miller is entranced by Hunt, his charm and his sheer neck when he basically proposes to her minutes after their first meeting. But she turns sombre and sad when she comes face to face with the real Hunt, drinking himself to death in unemployment. From there, she’s basically a sideline. Wilde does fine, but this movie isn’t about her.
Alexandra Maria Lara has a bit more to do and does it a hit better as Marlene Knaus, who meets Lauda while abandoning a party and later marries him. I’ve only ever seen Lara in one other film, but that was Der Untergang (Downfall), which is easily one of my favourite movies of all time. Her portrayal of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, in that film was wonderful, and while she obviously doesn’t have the same prominence here, she still does the same sterling job. She starts off feeling vaguely unnerved by the awkward and socially inept man sitting next to her in the car, but becomes more and more enraptured by him and his ways. That she comes to love him is no surprise to us, the audience, and it is a quiet, respectful kind of live, one that is defined by the fact that Lauda has trouble expressing himself. While Lara is mostly relegated after this to the role of a mere spectator – in fact I’m not even sure if she has more than a few lines after the Nürburgring crash scene – she’s still an effective spectator, whose reactions and emotive responses to Lauda’s ordeal is critical to making it a tense, horrible sequence for the audience. Lara had to make Marlene someone that Lauda would give up his shot at the title for, and I think she did that successfully.
Most of the other players are minor and, in some cases, fairly one-note, but they all perform their function as they are intended to. Pierfrnacesco Favino is Clay Regazzoni, Lauda’s initial perturbed teammate who later changes into a friend. Christian McKay is Alexander Hesketh, Hunt’s first patron, who plays him with a wonderful sense of disdain for tradition in racing, only to change into a depressed bankrupt by the end. Natalie Dormer is Hunt’s first conquest of the movie, a role that maybe required her more for his body than her acting talent, but she still does well enough, channelling a bit of Anne Boleyn from The Tudors. Julian Rhind-Tutt is Hunt’s initial pit crew chief, who has a nice scene later on full of glowing praise for Hemsworth’s character. Colin Stinton is Hunt’s later boss, who gets to give him the good news on his title win.
It is, overall, a tremendous cast that Howard has brought together, tent poled by his two main leads, supplemented by the two romantic sub-plot leads and multiplied by a very competent minor crew.
Visually, it is a triumphant display from Howard and his team, which includes cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle of the similarly wonderful looking Dredd, Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later. It is quite a challenge, taking something g like Formula One, which could be charitably described as visually dull in many respects, and turning it onto something that is cinematically exciting. Motorsports is, at the heart of it, just a bunch of cars going around in a circle, with TV coverage using the same shots and angles over and over again, in an environment where repetition for classification of performance can be very important. Howard had to do something more than that.
The result is a production with small, short shots, of zooming close ups on the actual vehicles from fixed camera, creating the impression of being in or right next to the cars as they swerve around corners and other drivers. The bright, almost reddish tint of the camerawork is a welcome change from the almost never-ending march of blue and teal in films recently and Howard avoids depicting the 1970s as a grim era as, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did. The camerawork is up close and personal, perfect for the kind of story being told here, where we are supposed to focus on these two men and their rivalry, and in the course of the racing scenes, come to think of the cars as just an extension of the person driving it.
There really is just the perfect mix of quick cuts and the occasional larger panning shot for the racing sequences, which is matched in sections elsewhere, like Hunt’s sex scenes or Lauda’s diligent mechanical work on his cars. The sex scenes in particular, with the almost montage like way Howard went about creating them, is great at showing the carefree world of sex, drugs and drink that Hunt lived in. Going back to the constant duality of the movie, Lauda’s respective individual opening scenes are much less manic, involving him speaking to his father in refined looking surrounds, three camera shots, coffee, straight talking and a simple breakaway from his family’s expectations.
Some individual ones should be noted. My favourite might have been a look at one of the 1976 Grand Prix’s, as Hunt strives to overcome Lauda early on. The two are seen racing from a distance, Lauda in front. They vanish behind a thick mass of vegetation, the music dips, the crowd holds its breath, and they burst back into frame, this time with Hunt in the lead, this brilliant mix of subtle yet epic framing to illustrate the way that Hunt was beginning to get the better of Lauda.
Then there is the post-accident internal visualisation of Lauda’s eyeline in the driver seat, as he struggles with a bright haze in his eyes that could be both physical and mental. This badly effects his driving, until a brief slow-motion moment where he dodges around colliding cars in front of him, a sudden boost to his chances, proof that he is still the magnificent driver he always was, a visual technique lamp shaded during his earlier country joyride. The same haze effect is used throughout Lauda’s actual accident, a truly engrossing, yet horrifying moment, and in the build-up to his decision to retire at Japan, where the haze takes on the form of one of his first post-Nürburgring sights, his distraught wife turning away from him in the hospital.
Another favourite is Lauda, having watched Hunt claw his way up the leaderboard thanks to the Austrian’s absence, struggling to put back on his helmet in the hospital. He stands apart from his frustrated and emotionally torn wife, the distance from people that has defined so much of his life up to that point. He can’t get the thing on at first, but with the same determination he’s previously shown, and with a gut-wrenching admonition for Marlene to “say nothing” while he does so, he forces the thing on over his burns, as excellent a “hero rising” scene as I have ever seen. The next sequence, Lauda is back at the circuit, suddenly the popular hero that Hunt always was before.
The racing sequences fulfil the role of “action” scenes, and as previously mentioned they have been done in the way best suited to create interest and tension for the audience. Howard captures, for this medium, exactly why car races are so popular, right down to the iron will needed to actually just go past the guy ahead of you. The CGI work is limited, but competent, most particularly the Nürburgring crash and subsequent inferno, which looked suitably terrible an experience to have to go through, from the sudden collision with the barrier, to the disintegration of the car, to the burst of engulfing flames.
There is a small bit of gore in Rush – a decapitated drivers body makes a brief appearance in one shot early on, and Lauda’s burn injuries are prominently displayed – but it all serves a purpose, which is makes it an acceptable inclusion.
The actual cars themselves look great, vintage to our eyes today, but recreated faithfully and accurately. The same goes for the general production, sets and costumes, a nice recreation of the period, with distinction added between the workmanlike Lauda, the free spirited Hunt and his entourage, with the only common thread in their appearance being the blood red driver suits they wear while in the car. Some wonderful dresses and accessories characterise the female leads, with Olivia Wilde’s necklace during her divorce meeting scene with Hemsworth providing a suitable jumping off point for the discussion.
These are all excellent visual shots, effects and production details that illustrate the great way that camera and editing work can spark and refine emotions in the audience to the director’s desire. Howard is good at that, as demonstrated here. It is a very pretty production, one that easily stand with the like of Les Miserables and Much Ado About Nothing from earlier this year.
It is an excellent script that Peter Morgan, a former Howard collaborator on Frost/Nixon, has come with, that wraps all of the aforementioned things together. There are some bad moments to mention I suppose, but it is the relatively low number of them that makes Rush what it is in terms of dialogue: a keeper. I thought that some of Hunt’s come on lines very early in the film might have been a bit on the nose and ridiculous, but they still helped formulate the initial image of his character pretty well. As mentioned, Lauda has a fairly pretentious monologue during his honeymoon that is an unnecessary bring down on what should be a moment to see him actually happy, as opposed to questioning the worth of that happiness.
But that’s just about it in terms of bad wordplay really. The back and forth between the two leads, when it happens, is excellent, even if they’re just arguing about the niggildy details of F1 guidelines, or if they’re outright insulting the other. That continues on in the interaction between the two male leads and their romantic counter-parts, in both the outwardly flirty and then undeservedly vicious conversations between Hunt and Suzy, or the initially tremulous and then genuinely warm words between Lauda and Marlene.
I mentioned that Rush is filled with memorable scenes, and the dialogue is a big part of that of course. Hunt admonishes his wife for looking for normality, since she’s looking for it with the kind of men “who are willing to kill themselves, while driving in circles.” Lauda heartbreakingly urges his wife, as she seems close to stopping him from putting a helmet to relent: “If you love me, you won’t say anything.” Hunt trying to convince a prospective employer of his drive: “I can beat this guy (Lauda)…Will he put his life on the line the day it really matters?” Lauda telling Marlene, on the eve of their wedding (which he has underwhelming referred to as a “family matter”), “If I was ever going to do this with someone, it would be you.” Hunt’s repeated use of the rat insult, and Lauda’s retort that the rodents are “industrious, stubborn, indestructible” so he doesn’t consider the comparison a negative. Or the final interaction between the two leads, when Hunt describes driving as a modern day version of Knighthood, while Lauda continually falls back to calculation, calculation, calculation. And there are so much more to pick and choose from, but I will refrain for fear of gushing with praise.
Some healthy doses of humour are interjected with the script, usually of a gallows kind. One can’t help but laugh when Lauda tells a priest trying to administer the last rites “I’m not dead yet” or the self-deprecating humour of the initial team that Hunt gets involved with. Other times its more subtle, but still humorous, such as when Lauda bids “Good night” to the motor crew he’s kept working all through the night and into the morning or even just the way that Lauda uses the word “asshole” constantly, such as when he describes himself in the opening flashforward. Easily the best of course, is Marlene thinking she has flagged down a lift thanks to her good looks, only to be stunned when the stopping drivers only have time for Lauda.
Howard could never be accused of allowing poor scriptwork into his movies, and I genuinely believe that Rush is his best effort to date on that score.
Speaking of scores, Han Zimmer is the main in front of the orchestra, and good lord has he knocked it out of the park again. I mentioned in my Man of Steel review that Zimmer can be, I can say without compunction, criticised for using similar notes and beats in his movies, and that does continue on here. You can hear bits and pieces of Batman Begins and Inception here and there.
But man oh man, it is a still a joy to listen to. Zimmer nails it completely, crafting a score, mixed with a select soundtrack of appropriate contemporary music (nice to see Thin Lizzy make an appearance), that perfectly accentuates and lifts up every scene. From the main theme, “1976” to the credits music of “Lost But Won”, every track and every note is used brilliantly to bring added emotion to a scene, and enrapture the viewer even further. There is a heavy use on deep and twangy electric guitar notes, the kind of thing that F1 has been using for promotion for a long time, due to their inherent similarity to the sound of an engine rumbling, an effect that works for them and works here.
The rest is Zimmer’s usual arsenal – a simply seven beat violin tune to act as a main theme (see Man of Steel), horns for heroics (Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator) hard and fast drum solos when things need to be ramped up (Inception), off-key tones to unnerve (The Dark Knight). Zimmer utilises these well worn tools, and creates something that is different enough from the others to be enjoyed and praised on its own merits, if only a little bit similar to the films just mentioned. When it works, it works, and even if there are strains of “The Joker Theme” or “Time” or “The Battle”, it doesn’t change the fact that the music played a critical part in drawing me further into the experience that was Rush.
One example upon many will suffice: the track dubbed “Nürburgring”. The entire movie really does revolve around the events of the 1976 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, known as the “Graveyard” by drivers at the time due to its high accident rate. The scene is set remarkably for what follows. Lauda is already on a knife edge due to Hunt’s recent success. His attempts to get the race called off due to a deluge of rain are foiled by Hunt, who convinces the other drivers to continue and then rubs it Lauda’s face. Lauda faces an overeager fan who wants his autograph dated because “it might be your last one”, leading to a look of pure murder on Lauda’s face (another excellent Brühl moment). Zimmer sets it up with simple organ and violin work, nerve wrackingly solitary and quiet, like we are inside the utterly focused minds of the two men. Just as well, Howard and Zimmer know when the music needs to be shut off, when just the sign of driving rain is enough and a score is not required.
The race starts. Zimmer cranks it up a few notches – shriller horns, deeper horns, electric guitar and a constant drum beat. The tension is rising. The beat becomes repetitive, long a heart beat getting faster and faster. It is an heroic tune, one for titans going into battle against each other, evoking feelings of everything being on the line.
Hunt and Lauda are so wrapped up in their rivalry that they both choose wet tires because the other does, and end up having to both come in for early pit stops due to the rapidly drying track. The music dies, slowly becoming one long, thin and continually drawn out wail, an off-key note that signifies the coming dread, with interspersed drum beats of an uneven nature, the turmoil of a botched tyre change, the desperation growing within Lauda’s mind as he see’s Hunt take off again ahead of him.
Lauda takes off and a rapid drum beat erupts from the score, with deep guitar and sharp violins joining in (that frequent Zimmer collaborator, Satnam Ramgotra, one of the best drummers I have ever heard). Lauda races around the track at speed, becoming airborne for a few seconds. Hearts are now racing a hundred miles an hour as we watch Lauda go, his own previous subsistence on calculation temporarily abandoned, while the camera work makes it clear that there might be something wrong with the inner workings of car. Exact moments of tension see the music suddenly stop as you hold your breath, then erupts again.
Lauda reaches a corner. Time slows, as does the score. The violins slow, the horns slow and suddenly we are all in that moment, drawn in by the music.
Lauda spins and smashes into the wall. A dull, reverberating drum beat echoes into the distance as his car wrenches and then breaks apart, as if the orchestra themselves are dumbfounded by what they are playing to. The music suddenly ceases as the horror of what has happened and what is about to happen becomes readily apparent. And then it’s onto the next track “Inferno”, but I will stop there. Through the use of an orchestra, Zimmer has added so much to the sequence as to be an irremovable part of the equation.
I think I’ve made my point. Zimmer has his flaws, but there are few composers out there with the same skill at conducting as he, and of using the instruments at his command to markedly improve a scene, to tinker with the emotional resonance, to implant the required feelings and moods in the audience.
Onto themes then. The obvious one, of course, is rivalry. The entire story and the two main characters are defined by their rivalry with one another, across so many planes. They both have to be the best driver, they both have to win the world championship, and they both have to be seen as the better man. They battle over popularity contests, over rules, and briefly over women. They attack each other’s weaknesses, whether it is Lauda’s social ineptness or Hunt’s disastrous marriage. Each one of always trying to get ahead of the other.
But rivalry can be a positive too, as Lauda outlines at the conclusion. An enemy brings with him drive, the will to win, the need to improve. Lauda and Hunt are utterly focused on beating the other, to the extent that they are able to do amazing things. Lauds returns to the driver’s seat less than two months after being in an accident that should have killed him, rushing through physically painful medical procedures to do so. Hunt drives crazily on the last few laps of a rain and fog strewn Japanese Grand Prix, nearly killing himself several times over just for a shot at winning the lasting glory he so craves. Neither man would have been capable of doing any of those things if he had not been so totally driven by the other. Opposites in so many ways, similar in so many others, the two are able to reconcile, to an extent, by their final scene, mostly due to that fact that their rivalry has ended in a de facto sense: Hunt no longer has the same drive having won his title, while Lauda is already looking ahead.
Winning is the other big theme for me, in several different senses. Both men have the need to win the world title, for different reasons, but it’s something they both want very badly. But Rush is not really a story where that is the main point of the conclusion, otherwise it would be more adamant about the superiority of Hunt. No, Rush is a movie about two men with similar objectives, who achieve them in different ways. Hunt wants fame, celebrity and to live fast (which, of course, came with dying young). He achieves all of those things, with only a brief and botched stopover in matrimony. That’s his win, and you are never left in any doubt as to the happiness that it brings him.
For Lauda, he misses out on the ’76 title, but there are others in his future, thanks to his unerringly clear driving skill. His victory is coming to realise that there is, indeed, more to life than just calculation and tweeks to his cars performance: that his earlier claim that he would do anything else if he was better at it might not be exactly true. His discipline remains, his concentration remains, but he’s found love, and something that he isn’t willing to lose. That prospect frightens him on his honeymoon, but by the Japanese Grand Prix, he’s come to realise it isn’t a weakness, not really. It might have cost him the title, but the perspective gained on life, love and the power of the relationship between him and Marlene is far more valuable than that. Nürburgring and the aftermath have brought him to a better place and the right kind of epiphany: sometimes, it just isn’t worth it. That’s a win in itself.
Then there is the theme of women. I’ve already mentioned how both men could be defined and contrasted by their interactions with women. Hunt goes through them all fast, treating them as little more than sexual playthings, becoming embittered when he is chained to one who has a career and a mind of her own. Lauda struggles to come close to Hunt’s prowess, getting warned off dating one of his ex’s by a team mate and later getting told off by the same person for his lack of social graces. When he meets his beautiful future wife for the first time, he can’t stop himself from critiquing her car (even though he’s right), and only winds up impressing her with the one thing that he excels in: driving. Marlene gives him an outlet and lets him grow as a person, an oasis of calm and patient understanding in a maelstrom of rivalry and danger at the track.
Rush is a movie very sympathetic to these women, who attach themselves to men who are likely to be killed at any time in the pursuit of a pass. Their performances are subdued and reserved, but not unimportant I would say. Lauda’s relationship with Marlene is definitely portrayed in the better light by modern standards, even if Suzy is bizarrely conciliatory with Hunt before their divorce, basically absolving him of responsibility in their final meeting by declaring that his adulterous ways are “just who (he) is right now”. Rush’s point on that whole score is probably “to each his own”. Hunt is able to perform better when he falls back on his womanising, Lauda when he commits to someone. But ultimately, Rush is a film about men, and how they live in such circumstances, through that most male of obsessions.
For a movie like this, you might be surprised to learn that the male obsession with cars isn’t actually all that strong a theme. Hesketh has a nice bit near the start where he talks on this topic, on how the male sex loves engines more than women and I suppose that might be true in a general sense. But the cars in Rush are just extensions of the wills of the drivers, and never really steal that much focus away from Brühl or Hemsworth. Their fixation on each other is much more intense here than their fixation on their machines. I do think this is a good thing – if I wanted to see grown men fawn over cars, I’d suffer through an episode of Top Gear – and it ties back into one of my very first points about the nature of sports movie.
Lastly, there is a simple theme of the heart versus the head, of passion versus calculation. Hunt and Lauda are different sides of the same coin: Hunt see’s racing as a thrill, as a ticket to fame, women and glory, who does his driving with his gut and who pushes himself so far because he has no sense of self-preservation. He is derisive about his counterparts more surgical approach, right to the end. His style of racing is an extension of himself and his hedonistic lifestyle. When he tries to be more serious about the task, to settle down and be more like Lauda, it’s a disaster for his racing career.
Lauda refuses to get into the car (most of the time) if there is more than a 20% chance that his car will breakdown and potentially kill him. For him it is a job, something that he happens to be good at. He drives with his mind, walking the track before a race, knowing every rule and regulation. He hides some baser emotions and motivations (like getting back at his disapproving family) but only rarely errs from his calculated mindset. His style of driving is an extension of himself also, and when he abandons it in Germany, when he drives like Hunt when he is trying to catch the Englishman, he nearly kills himself.
I suppose it is all about the titular “rush”, that addictive feeling that comes with powering such an advanced piece of machinery around the track, with feeling the risk of death with every turn, pass and straight. Both men feel this, albeit with Hunt being far more open to it. Both talk about the will to win, the will to push yourself just that little bit further than the man in front of you. In the end, I suppose Hunt is able to feel a bit more of that rush and actually win the title on the racetrack, while Lauda comforts himself with the knowledge that, as good as the rush may be, he doesn’t consider it worth his life.
I must move towards a conclusion on this admittedly giant retrospective. I said at the start that a good sports movie is never actually about a sport, and Rush embodies that statement. This is a tension filled, heart-warming and intense story of one of the most famous sporting rivalries in history, and that is what the story is about, these two opposed men, alike and yet unlike, and how they came to define themselves by their rivalry with the other. Rush is about these two men, not motorsport.
And it a great movie. Not the very best movie I have seen this year, but certainly the best movie I have seen in months, and a near certain top-five contender for 2013. Amid a constant stream of so-so movies over the past while, Rush is a breath of fresh air. Its story is compelling, the relationship between the two leads is enthralling, the cast is doing stupendous work, the visuals are beautiful, the script is tight, the music is impressive and the depth of the film is something to see. This is just one of those movies that should, and I hope will, be held in the very highest regard in years to come. There are just so few flaws to actually speak off, the odd line or moment that doesn’t quite fit, that I cannot say that I had many criticisms for Rush.
It really is one of the best movie experiences that I have had in ages, a film that I think that anybody could enjoy. A movie about men driving around in circles has great potential for blandness, as so many movies of this here tend to fall into. Rush avoids that, spectacularly so. Ron Howard has really pulled it off big time here, the sort of film that should finally elevate him to a higher tier of director consideration, and could even mean awards in the future. Fully recommended, to all and sundry. Go see it.
(All pictures are copyright of Exclusive Media Universal Productions, StudioCanal and Pathe Productions.)