Many sports movies follow a predictable path of an underdog team/player working their way through a season or competition against the odds to ultimately reach the reigning champion. Often, such films make it very easy to root for said underdog by having them be essentially decent, hard-working folk, while those at the top are mean, arrogant and sometimes even cheaters, the type we’d all like to see defeated. Rush, the latest film from Ron Howard, does not stoop to such an easy level. Instead, in presenting the real-life story of two Formula One drivers and their years’ long rivalry, it has them both be pretty unlikable individuals. This actually works to the film’s great advantage, not only in standing out from the pack of other sports movies, but also in giving the audience new ways of viewing this competitive spirit.
While both drivers are, as I mentioned, not the most pleasant of people, they’re also very different from one another. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is an egotistical, hard-partying, reckless womaniser, a ‘rock-star racing driver’, succeeding though his power and aggression on the track. Niki Lauda (a potentially star-making turn from Inglorious Basterds’ Daniel Brühl) on the other hand, is a cold, calculating man lacking in social skills, who carefully oversees the construction of his cars and meticulously assesses the race tracks. The film follows their careers from their first meeting, an unfriendly encounter at a Formula Three track in 1970, to the 1976 season, where they are both at the top of their sport. The majority of the film details the crucial 1976 season but it takes time to firmly establish its leads and how they built up to this point. That might sound a bit formulaic but the difference is we spend around an equal amount of time with both of them. When it comes to the showdown season, Lauda is the champion and Hunt the challenger but importantly, Rush doesn’t invite you to cheer one and boo the other.
There have hardly been any films about F1, or as the film refers to it at one point, ‘men driving around in circles’. It’s not an obviously cinematic subject and Rush has to get a whole season’s worth of races into less time than one takes in real life. Howard frequently skips them all together, showing the cars starting then a card informing us of the result, likely an unavoidable tactic, but when he does show the races he crafts them as thrilling set-pieces, combining the sounds of the vehicles with period songs or a superior Hans Zimmer score, and cutting quickly between drivers point-of-view, close up on the cars, aerial and audience shots in a manner far more exciting than a real F1 race.
As that last sentence may have inferred, I’m not much of an F1 fan myself and as a result, did not know the outcome of the real Hunt/Lauda rivalry. Some reviews I’ve seen think it’s fair game to discuss but I go the other way, in fact I would strongly recommend any other nineteen seventies era F1-ignorant film fans out there to avoid looking up anything about the true story before seeing Rush, as it does not play out in a predictable fashion and potentially contains some real surprises.
There are a couple of nags with Rush, most notably that its central theme is conveyed perfectly well by the story but come its conclusion the film feels the need to have a character re-iterate it in a unnecessarily blatant manner, as if to make sure everyone in the audience absolutely gets what this was all about.
At a glance, Rush might appear to resemble a host of other sports films, but by treating both of its rivals equally, packing in many exciting races, sharp dialogue, and a great pair of leads, Howard’s made one of the better sports stories in recent memory.