I am a passionate and generally pretty well informed sports fan. I like lots of sports; team sports, individual sports; love ’em all. I’m also from south-central Indiana. So it would follow that I would be a fan of auto racing. But I’m not. Oh, I did watch the Indy 500 once, and sort of followed the travails of the Andretti clan back in the day, but I don’t really like it. Couldn’t tell you the difference between Formula One and IndyCars, for example. Am frantically uninterested in NASCAR. Sort of like Tony Stewart, but only because he’s a fellow Hoosier.
So watching Rush proved an interesting experience; it’s a based-on-real-events sports movie, but one in which I really honestly didn’t know who won (or did win). I mean, if you watch, say, Miracle, that Disney movie about the 1980 US hockey team, I’m not much of a hockey team, but I do know who won. Not so with Rush. Made it all the more exciting.
It’s Ron Howard’s film about the rivalry between two race car drivers–Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and is mostly about the 1976 season, the year they were one and two in the Formula One standings. Best film of Ron Howard’s career, IMHO, and the man’s won an Oscar. I also liked the recent documentary film Senna, so maybe auto racing works better in movies than in real life. Or maybe, you know, those are just two really good movies.
As the film presents them, Niki Lauda was a consummate perfectionist, a meticulous craftsman whose attention to detail was legendary, but also kind of obnoxious, a guy who said what he thought even if it insulted other people. James Hunt was a playboy, charming, good looking, charismatic, a wonderfully talented racer whose womanizing and partying threatened a brilliant career. They couldn’t have been less alike, and they couldn’t stand each other, at least as presented in the movie. Lauda was also happily married (Alexandra Maria Lara was exceptionally good in a basically thankless part), while Hunt was quite unhappily married (Olivia Wilde plays Suzy Hunt), his marital woes playing themselves out in tabloids.
Bruhl’s tremendous as Lauda, especially in the scene where he meets his wife. He’s trapped at a party where he’s supposed to be schmoozing sponsors, a task he loathes. She leaves early, gives him a ride. On the way, he details all the things that he can observe that are wrong with her car; she insists the car is fine, and clearly can’t wait to get him out of it. The car breaks down. They hitchhike, and the car that picks them up is driven by two racing enthusiasts, who are thrilled to have Niki Lauda drive their car. But he refuses to drive fast, telling her, ‘why should I, what’s in it for me?’ She challenges him to, and with a grin, he takes off. Suddenly the two guys in the back are whooping it up, and she is both thrilled and scared. It’s a wonderful scene, funny and romantic and exciting.
The racing scenes are spectacular. The camera work is exquisitely tight, with closeups on tires and the road and even inside the engine, and p.o.v. shots of what it looks like and feels like to drive that magnificent a machine that fast. It’s an astonishing technical achievement, an extraordinary combination of sound design and sound editing and cinematography and editing, always orienting us in time and space, but with enough subjective camera work to thrust us into the action.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away some plot in this paragraph, but if you know anything at all about Niki Lauda, you’ll know this; a major story thread involves Lauda crashing, his car catching fire, with Lauda trapped in there for over a minute. It nearly burned his face off, and nearly destroyed his lungs and vision; it came that close to killing him. 42 days later, he was back in his car, driving again. Bruhl (and a marvelous make-up crew) show us the exquisite pain of that injury and the treatment for it, but also his incredible self-discipline and courage. Niki Lauda is not a very likeable character in this film, but he’s infinitely admirable. It’s an acting tour-de-force. And Hemsworth is equally spectacular, showing us, in Hunt, a delightfully charming man, and the emptiness that drives him.
Like I said, I don’t much like auto racing as a sport. But I absolutely loved this movie. And not knowing how it turned out was part of the pleasure. Go see it.