Ron Howard’s Rush, scripted by Peter Morgan, tells the extraordinary story of the 1976 F1 season when British driver James Hunt was pitted against Niki Lauda for the world championship.
True to its title, Rush makes rousing viewing, even if the adrenalin thrill of the race sequences themselves can’t always disguise the cliché-ridden aspects of Morgan’s screenplay.
Hunt (played with tremendous brio by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) is a reckless, womanising playboy of a driver. Early in the film, he is part of a team run by Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay), a flamboyant aristocrat who decides to take a crack at Formula One almost on a whim.
By complete contrast, Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), the calculating Austrian whose buck teeth earn him the nickname of “the rat”, plots his entry into F1 with utter ruthlessness.
The filmmakers take some liberties with the true story of the Hunt/Lauda rivalry, depicting an early, non-F1 race between the two drivers in which Hunt’s typically gung-ho approach behind the wheel enables him to win but only after he has taken potentially lethal risks.
Rush is set in a period when death is an occupational hazard. This adds to the glamour of the sport. The golden-haired Hunt who vomits before each race but otherwise seems blithely unconcerned about the dangers he is facing, is the perfect driver for such an era. Everything about his career is haphazard. For example, he is only given a chance to race in a competitive team, McLaren, because no other top drivers are available.
Lauda’s genius, by contrast, is in setting up cars to achieve maximum performance.
The irony is that Lauda is the one who has the near-fatal accident, swerving off the track in his Ferrari early in the German Grand Prix after taking a highly uncharacteristic risk.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (best known for his work on low-budget Danish Dogme movies) shoots the races in exhilarating fashion, always giving us the sense that we’re at the heart of the action.
Less successful are the scenes exploring the drivers’ private lives. Hunt’s marriage to Suzy Miller ends when she leaves him for movie star Richard Burton. The resolutely unromantic Lauda marries Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), who can’t believe initially that such a reticent man could really be a driver.
At times, the film veers into buddy movie territory. The drivers, for all their rivalry and seeming enmity, are utterly fascinated by one another. There is also an attempt to cast Hunt and Lauda as mythic archetypes. All this is only fitfully successful. It’s out on the track itself that Rush really picks up speed and emotional urgency.