Rush, the newest film from director Ron Howard, who directed A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, certainly lives up to its name. The film follows two Formula One race car drivers in the 1970s—two men who hurtle around racetracks at 170 miles per hour in what one character calls “coffins on wheels”.
James Hunt and Niki Lauda both leave their families’ businesses behind in order to take a shot at the one thing they are good at—racing—but the similarities between the two end there. Hunt, played by The Avenger’s Chris Hemsworth, is a Brit with plenty of charm and a penchant for women and weed, and relies on guts and daring to win each race. Lauda, played by a Spanish-born German actor named Daniel Brühl who will soon be seen in The Fifth Estate with Benedict Cumberbatch, is an abrasive perfectionist from Germany who relies on mechanical precision and intense preparation on his road to success. The two are rivals from their very first race on a Formula Three circuit in England, when both of their cars spin out of control and Hunt pulls a risky stunt to win the race. Their differing personalities and methods clash on and off the racetrack, and what follows is an intense rivalry as Hunt and Lauda ascend the ranks and make it to Formula One, and then face off against each other for the world championship title.
The 1970s were a very dangerous time for Formula One drivers, and there were many casualties. The threat of death looms large over both Hunt and Lauda, though they deal with it in very different ways. The swaggering, reckless Hunt throws up before most races, and the calculating Lauda declares that he will not go over a 20 percent risk of dying. The danger, and Hunt and Lauda’s obsessive rivalry, comes to a head during the 1976 racing season, which changes the way they drive and view the world.
What I liked most about this film was the character development. The joint biopic of Hunt and Lauda does not shy away from the flaws found in both men. Hunt is a self-absorbed womanizer who races during the day and parties all night. Lauda is a cold, abrasive man who is not afraid to make enemies as he climbs to the top of his sport. Hunt, who almost oozes charm and literally has a girl out of her pants within five minutes of the movie, is the kind of guy that American audiences have been trained to root for—think James Kirk, James Bond, etc. But this film shows the dark side of the wise-cracking, charismatic hero. We see Hunt at his very lowest point, when he has lost his car and sponsor, gets drunk, and verbally abuses his wife. While Lauda has absolutely no charisma whatsoever, he assumes the heroic mantle in the second half of the film, as he provides a moral center.
Both men, at the end of the film, have learned from each other. Hunt learns about grit, determination, and loyalty, and Lauda understands the importance of passion both on and off the racetrack. As opposites they push each other to succeed and go to heights they never would have achieved on their own.
I loved this movie. It was compelling, gripping, and, well, a total rush. But what I loved most about the film, thrills aside, was the way it made me think about heroism. I left the theater thinking about what our culture values in heroes today, and about the things that make people truly heroic. We see Hunt and Lauda struggle, fail, and fall, and see all of their flaws on display. We see the low points of the character we would usually assume is the hero, and the quiet triumph off the track of the character we would usually love to hate. The acting, directing, and cinematography are top notch, but it is the characterization, and the questions that arise because of it, that make this film a true champion.