Formula 1 may seem like a strange choice for Hollywood director Ron Howard to pick for his latest film. In a country that follows the more ragtag racing of NASCAR, F1 has not quite caught on in the same way it has elsewhere but as Howard points out, he’s more interested in the story of his two lead characters, James Hunt and Niki Lauder than the actual racing, and it’s that which he delivers in Rush.
In Rush, two drivers come head-to-head in the Formula Vee championship. British driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a flashy playboy type with an eye for the ladies, while Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a cool, calculated character. The two men clash a number of times as they rise up into the ranks to Formula 1 and then with varying methods they become the number 1 and number 2 racers in the World and compete over a couple of years to determine who is the best.
It’s a story as old as sports itself, with the more naturally gifted cocky sportsman taking on the hard-working perfectionist. Rush takes this simplistic story and smartly focuses on its central characters. In Hemsworth and Bruhl you have two actors with a sizzling chemistry whose relationship goes so deep that it runs through hatred, jealousy and eventually respect as they drive each other forward. It’s a compelling narrative that grips the audience thoroughly. While the advertising may focus on Hunt, the story actually revolves around Lauda, which is a smart move as his somewhat anti-social character has the most scope for dramatic tension. Both men are presented as both protagonist and antagonist dependent on the era being shown, which leads to an interesting dynamic for the audience with our loyalties constantly shifting between the two.
Charting the history of the two men’s careers, Rush has all the hallmarks of a Ron Howard film. It’s a competently made genre piece that does exactly what you’d expect, but while he may have lacked an individual auteur’s eye in the past he is given more leeway to present a more realistic and less sentimental view of the story and the result is a thoroughly gripping film. This is in no small part thanks to his cinematographer, who lifts Rush to even greater heights. Anthony Dod Mantle, the man who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and whose exceptional eye for beauty helped raise the bar in films like 127 Hours and Dredd is on sparkling form again here. He captures the beauty of the finely-tuned machinery while helping to give the film a visceral realism that helps establish a very definite sense of place and time. Along with Wally Pfister he might be the best cinematographer currently working.
Ron Howard has gone to great lengths to make the film appealing to as broad a fanbase as possible, while leaving nods to petrol-heads, which help to create a film that can be enjoyed by fans and naysayers alike. Fast-paced, gripping and beautifully shot Rush is a slow-burner that will stay with you long after the credits. Those who know the story may lose some of the impact, but for those who don’t it’s thrilling right up until the final moments. But be warned it’s not always comfortable viewing and brace yourself for some real edge-of-your-seat action. One of the films of the year.