I never saw the appeal of competitive driving. All that burned-out machinery and equipment, all the land that gets scooped up for building the tracks, all that gasoline spent, and for what? To see people drive around in circles with the hope that one of them dies a horrible fiery death. Pointless excess, gratuitous violence, and grotesque displays of corporate sponsorship: It’s like a collection of all the reasons why the rest of the world hates America.
Yet Rush endeared itself to me pretty much immediately by explicitly stating that yes, it is crazy. One of the main characters tells us in voice-over that only a lunatic would actually take part in this sport. Either becuse of blind desperation or some bizarre death wish, these are the people who would risk their lives for fame, fortune, and victory.
The film dramatizes the real-life story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, respectively played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl. The film portrays the two as extremely bitter rivals, though I understand that the real-life Hunt and Lauda were always very close friends off the track. Of course, that might have made for a more boring movie, so whatever.
Anyway, Hunt is played as a man overloaded with swagger. He’s a drunkard, he’s a pot-smoker, he’s a rampant womanizer, you know the type. The kind of guy who’s a danger to himself and others, yet everyone loves him because he’s the life of the party. So of course Hunt makes a living out of driving 170 MPH in an explosive coffin on wheels. Guy gets off on it.
Compare that to Lauda, who’s much more of an abrasive know-it-all. The guy isn’t just an expert on driving, he’s a genius mechanic as well. He knows absolutely everything about what it takes to win a race, and he’s got an arsenal of F-bombs waiting for anyone who says otherwise. Lauda has a tremendous disrespect for authority, and he probably has something of a Napoleon complex due to his short height and homely complexion. For this guy, winning is an end in itself. He’s out to prove that he’s that he’s the best, and he’ll die for it if need be.
Basically put, Hunt and Lauda are both portrayed as completely incompatible types of assholes. Naturally, it would be an understatement to say that they don’t get along. It might sound awful to think that we have to spend the entire movie with these dickheads, but the film gives us a few reasons to stick with them. For one thing, it’s easy to sympathize with Lauda as the underdog who wants to gain respect based purely on his skills. Lauda definitely knows what he’s doing, even if he’s a prick about it. As for Hunt, the simple truth is that he’s a fun guy to be around. Hell, we first meet Hunt after he’s been beaten to shit with a crowbar, yet he still has the charisma and the energy to bang his nurse. Sorry, but you’ve just got to respect that in a weird sort of way.
However, it’s more important to look at Hunt and Lauda as a pair. After all, the film gets away with two dickish protagonists because they spend the entire narrative calling each other out on their bullshit. That brings me to another aspect of the film: Both of these characters are made to suffer for their failings. Hunt’s self-destructive ways cost him dearly in this film, damaging his career, his friendships, his marriage, you name it. As for Lauda… well, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that Lauda’s arrogance nearly costs him his life. The trailers already did that for me. And anyway, I’m pretty sure that spoilers about real-life events from forty years ago don’t count.
Anyway, the most important point is that these characters spend the entire film striving to be the best. These men push themselves to the utmost limit, gladly risking their lives to be world champions at racing in circles around a track. As such, there’s always the implication that these characters will come to improve as human beings in the process of improving as drivers. They challenge each other and learn from each other in ways that are very compelling to watch.
This movie could have cut the racing scenes entirely and it would still have been a good movie. But the racing scenes are what elevate the movie to a great one. The racing scenes are a technical marvel, and every single one is riveting from start to finish. The camerawork goes around, close to, and even inside of the cars, detailing these machines with an intimacy that I haven’t seen since the camcorder in 127 Hours. The visuals are also spruced up with expert use of slow-mo, strategic close-up shots, and fast-paced editing. Hell, even the title cards are presented in a dynamic way.
Additionally, if you needed more proof of how important sound design is, this movie will give you a whole batch of reasons why. The sound design in the racing scenes had me glued to the edge of my seat through every moment. I can’t remember the last time I had a cinematic experience that immersive outside of an IMAX screening, the sound was that effective. Of course, the fantastic score from maestro Hans Zimmer was so much icing on the cake.
Getting back to our two leads, there’s no denying that they were superbly delivered. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast never quite meets that same caliber. There are other characters, to be sure, but none of them really stand out. There are something like half a dozen people working with either Hunt or Lauda, and most of them get some degree of screen time, but I couldn’t tell one from the other if I tried. There’s also Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino), who gets a couple of scenes before all but completely disappearing.
Still, the best cases in point are undoubtedly the wives of our lead characters. Olivia Wilde appears as Suzy Miller, the British model who married Hunt before leaving him for Richard Burton, splitting up the legendary Burton/Taylor couple for good. Just from that limited information, I’d say that Miller sounds like a fascinating person whose life story could potentially make for a good biopic in itself. But you’d scarcely know it from this picture.
I mean, I get Miller’s place in this movie: She’s there to serve as another example of how Hunt is gradually destroying everything good in his life. Yet the plotline stumbles because we learn so little about Miller and we never get an idea of what their relationship is like. Then again, the film makes a point about how Hunt and Miller hardly ever saw each other while they were married, so there’s that. Also, Hunt and Miller had only known each other for a few weeks before they got married, so at least the film has an excuse for cutting directly from the meet-cute to the wedding.
Elsewhere, we have Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda’s eventual wife, Marlene. It’s interesting to note that Lauda dated his wife for several years before they got married, while Hunt and Miller got married after only a few weeks. Hunt’s wedding was huge and magnificent while Lauda’s wedding was strictly minimalist. Yet Hunt’s marriage was brief and constantly troubled while Lauda’s marriage was long and happy (the film neglects to mention Lauda’s divorce in 1991).
But of course, that’s strictly about the Lauda/Marlene relationship. And as with Hunt/Miller, the relationship is far deeper than Marlene as an individual. There’s very little about her as a character that’s remarkable or memorable.
Still, Rush is all about its two lead characters, and their rivalry is portrayed superbly. The film does a sterling job of keeping the two balanced, though it certainly helps that Hemsworth and Bruhl both turn in outstanding work. Throw in some heart-pumping race scenes, powered by dazzling visuals and masterful sound design, and you’ve got a film that’s absolutely worth watching.