There’s no such thing as an unpredictable sports movie. Once in a while, a surprising one might pop up, but the rhythms of the story largely remain the same. An athlete pushes himself to succeed, stumbles, pushes himself beyond every conceivable limit, and then — you guessed it — succeeds. That success need not be a victory or championship. It could be a lesson learned, a promise kept, or a love rekindled. The point is: Any great sports movie is great in spite of this pattern. It can’t change. It’s a permanent formula for the genre. Any great sports movie, in other words, is great because it’s not just about a sport.
Rush is one of these movies. A fully torqued biopic based on the ’70s rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), it marks an exciting turn for Ron Howard, a director known for cranking out faux-falutin dramas like Cinderella Man and Apollo 13. With Rush, however, Howard has accomplished something rare and unexpected — he’s made a fun, exciting action movie that also has quite a few smart things to say about its subject.
Hemsworth in Rush
(Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)
It certainly helps that the story behind Rush does most of the heavy lifting — with a bit of Hollywood embellishment, of course. Hemsworth’s Hunt is a rakish skirt-chaser, who wins races because he’s irresponsible enough to risk life and limb in his “little coffin” of a racecar. “The closer you are to death,” he explains, “the more alive you feel.” Brühl’s Lauda is the polar opposite: a careful, cautious driver who relies on his knowledge and dedication to win. There’s a 20 percent chance he’ll die every time he gets onto the track, he says. He refuses to let that risk jump even a percentage point higher. As the two men work their way up the racing circuits, eventually reaching the echelon of Formula One, their rivalry festers from personal distaste into an aggressive sort of motivation. Hunt wants to beat Lauda. Lauda wants to be Hunt. They’re the two best drivers in the world. Predictable story, right?
Yes — and it’s very well done. Rush sticks to a simple distillation of Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry, mining it for worthwhile questions about the risks and rewards of such a dangerous sport. (Howard never shies away from showing the carnage of the era’s auto racing, so the weak-stomached should be prepared to look away at a moment’s notice.) What does Hunt want to accomplish? Why does Lauda even race? A lesser movie would skirt these ideas, and it’s a small miracle that Rush spends enough time off the racetrack to consider them. That’s the happy accident of a director like Ron Howard making a movie like this one. His workmanlike approach to filmmaking doesn’t lend itself to racing scenes — he never seems to settle on a place for his camera, burying it inside an engine as often as it’s drifting toward the stands — yet his style works wonders on the dueling philosophies of each man.
With Howard at his back, screenwriter Peter Morgan fills out scene after scene of high-adrenaline, heart-racing… conversations. The races are almost an afterthought to Morgan, who focuses on Hunt and Lauda’s dueling philosophies as the movie’s beating heart. That’s the surprise of Rush — after a grisly turn of events that throws the entire rivalry into sharp relief, it’s clear that this is not a movie about auto racing. It’s a movie about the men who are crazy enough to race them.