Review of Rush, Directed by Ron Howard
By ANDREW COLLINS
It would hard to find better source material for Rush, the latest film from director Ron Howard. The movie follows the legendary 1976 rivalry between Formula One racecar drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Something about watching a race just never gets old, and the actual story has all the dramatic turns of well-crafted fiction. Building on this sporting sensation of yesteryear, Rush takes the adrenaline and danger of 1970s Formula One racing and does it up to the nines in a masterfully crafted story of spectacle, passion, and suspense.
High-stakes competitions, by nature, often summon compelling characters, and such is the case here. Rush works because it pits two personally opposite but equally flawed characters against each other, creating a delightful asymmetry of passion. We find no heroes and villains in Rush, just two extraordinary men wrestling their lives for control as they send themselves hurtling around a racetrack at 150 miles an hour.
Their rivalry begins on a note of hate and derision on the Formula Three circuit, where Hunt cuts off Lauda in a dangerous pass in their first race. Their relationship doesn’t seem to warm up much when they face off in the Grand Prix. First Hunt derides Lauda for using a tiny technicality to try to get McLaren disqualified. Then Lauda bluntly blames Hunt for his injury, which occurred during a foul weather race on a difficult track; Lauda wanted to cancel but was unable to convince Hunt and most of the other drivers. Yet in the end, like any tradesmen, the two grow to have the utmost respect for each other, and are willing to defend the honor of the other when it counts (despite their repeated denunciation of each other as a******).
Much like the recent Star Trek films play Spock and Kirk off of each other in a conflict between logic and intuition, so Rush, through the calculating Austrian Niki Lauda and playboy Englishman James Hunt, presents us with two philosophies of racing and, ultimately, of life. Hunt’s instinct, guts, and risk-taking clash against Lauda’s precision, knowledge, and discipline. Lauda could have gone into banking, as his family wished, but he thought he could make more money as a racecar driver, so he did, mastering the art of both mechanics and driving. He only gains an “in” to the Ferrari team in the first place by improving their car’s speed. As a driver, Lauda refuses to race under any condition more dangerous than 20% odds.
Hunt, in contrast, craves the sensation of living on the edge of life and death. Truly living, for him, means cheating death while on the track and soaking up all the pleasures of men while off it. His roguish charm provides him the sex-appeal to get any girl he wants (which he does repeatedly throughout the film) and glory in the public eye. His meaning comes through the sense that he’s experiencing the best life can offer.
Rush almost certainly takes some theatrical liberties with various elements of Hunt’s and Lauda’s characters—namely, Hunt’s womanizing prowess and Lauda’s uncanny knack for spotting and fixing mechanical issues—but it resonates strongly because both of these men feel real, as if the film had been plucked from the world that we actually live in. This means we find plenty of sin to go around, but also beautiful hopes, affections, and a zeal for life. We find morality tales—Hunt’s recklessness on and off the track cause his wife to divorce him, for instance—yet we also see the fruits of disciplined love when Lauda drops out of the final race with his championship on the line because he does not want to take undue risk, for himself or his family.
During the film’s many race sequences, I often found myself rooting for Hunt, the swashbuckling underdog, to win. Yet as I reflected on the substance of their lives, I realized that if I had to choose to be one of them, I would pick Lauda in a second. He doesn’t end up with as many friends as Hunt, and his drive for excellence makes him a dismissive jerk in his relationships with others, but amid the chaos of Formula One racing he finds stability, and he stays faithful to the few that he actually does love.
This tension between the respective appeal of Hunt and Lauda is the mark of a good story. Rush lives in a cloud nine of the greatest drama and excitement that human competition has to offer. Such things should be enjoyed, for they provide us a brief respite from life’s hardness and remind us that we were made for joy. Yet the glory of competition is fleeting. The next race snuffs it out, exposing our superstars as fading mortals just like the rest of us—men worthy of our admiration and pity all at the same time.