Film review by Gordon K. Smith
Auto racing has been a popular subject of movies since the silent era, but no racing film has ever achieved as much of a character study while still delivering the need-for-speed thrills as Ron Howard’s RUSH. Working again with his FROST/NIXON screenwriter Peter Morgan, Howard tells the true story of two Formula One racers, British James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), and their intense rivalry for the 1976 Grand Prix Championship title, a rivalry that went from professional to personal.
It’s Hemsworth’s mug that you see plastered all over the ads for RUSH, although the film is just as much about his onscreen opponent.. It’s not only a commercial move, but perhaps a shrewd one as well, as it reinforces a point made in the film – Hunt was the handsome playboy/partier who was the poster-boy celebrity of that racing season, while Lauda was the stoic, methodical but technically brilliant opponent. Both actors are virtual lookalikes to the people they’re playing, and they do them justice with fine performances, as does Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife Suzy, who tires of his hedonism and dumps him for Richard Burton (yep, that one).
RUSH starts out pretty much like any auto racing saga, with cocky drivers, gorgeous groupies, and snarky trash talk between the competitors. But as the film goes along, it shifts into high gear (pardon the pun) both literally and figuratively, and becomes an engrossing study of the kind of personalities who risk their lives to win something big.
By the midpoint, RUSH is gripping stuff, especially with its depiction of the brutal German Grand Prix of ’76, where (mild spoiler if you don’t already know the story), a fiery crash on the rain-soaked track left Lauda severely burned. Howard gives us a riveting recreation of this incident, filmed on the exact spot where it happened, and delivered with top notch photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, music by Hans Zimmer, and especially the Oscar-worthy editing by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill.
Lauda’s painful recovery is told in excruciating detail – if closeup depictions of third-degree burns don’t threaten to upturn that $7 bag of popcorn you just finished off, the scene where Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed just might. That perhaps could have been dialed back a bit, and while we’re on the subject – did we REALLY need to see that many puke scenes, Ron? I don’t know why current filmmakers think we have to see those up close (even THE LONE RANGER had one) – characters hacking off-screen works just fine for me.
Daniel Bruhl is the real discovery here and makes us see the intelligence beneath the aloof, calculating exterior. Howard takes a risk by having Lauda and his companion Marlene (Alexandria Maria Lara) speak to each other in German, where safer directors would have kept it in audience-friendly English. It gives Bruhl another layer to add to his characterization, which deserves Oscar consideration next January. And expect such consideration for Howard – he still doesn’t have an identifiable style from film to film, like a Scorsese or Spielberg, but he knows how to make exhilarating cinema.