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Two men, both brilliant but both completely different. One is flamboyant, brash and impulsive. The other is calculating, methodical and abrasive. They are James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and they are the subject of Ron Howard’s latest film, Rush, which tells the story of their famous rivalry from its origins in lower division racing to its culmination in a head to head battle for the 1976 Formula One World Championship, a season which would for different reasons change both of their lives.
This is not just a movie for Formula One fans. In fact, to call Rush a sports movie feels reductive. The film starts with a voiceover from Lauda. “Twenty-five people start Formula One and each year two die. What kind of person does a job like that?” Rush is a character study. What kind of person willingly takes that kind of risk? The movie presents us with two opposite but co-dependent figures who are, in their different ways, that kind of person.
With two characters as diametrically opposed as Hunt and Lauda a more simplistic film would have sought to establish a clear hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist. Rush gives no such clear cut definitions. Instead both characters are complex personalities and both characters at different times have the audience on their side. Hunt, despite his charm, provides many of the films darker moments. Likewise, Lauda, despite his analytical nature provides most of the films laughs.
With the entire film being built around these two personalities, much falls on the shoulders of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl and both arguably deliver career best performances. The key to both performances is the actor’s ability – with the help of Peter Morgan’s fine screenplay – to take their character beyond caricature. Having already played a superhero and being blessed with superhuman handsomeness, Hemsworth heightens Hunt’s charm and makes for a believable playboy. But it is the moments where he takes you beneath the surface, beneath the façade, that really show his talent. Likewise, Brühl’s calculating and abrasive Lauda could have been yet another a simplistic, Germanic villain but Brühl gives him depth and as a result his own charm and likeability.
That all being said, Rush still really works as a sports movie. It is the best film ever made about motor sports. The racing scenes are exhilarating. While the actual depiction of the sporting event is where many sports movies fall short, Howard successfully brings life to the contest between these two men (the rest of the drivers are irrelevant), demonstrating the speed, closeness and incredible danger of what they do. Just as importantly, no two of the races feel the same. For each race there is something specific that draws our focus, so the drama never disappears.
Ron Howard has always been a gifted storyteller but over the last decade he seems to have had more misses than hits. He is a filmmaker who at times has been prone to playing it safe, but there is nothing safe about Rush either in its subject or its execution. Rush is a real return to form for him, the best motor racing film ever made, and one of the most exhilerating films of 2013.