You might think that if the driving scenes in your auto-racing movie are the least interesting thing about it, that's a problem. But it's far from a sign of engine trouble for Rush, a swift-moving, character-rich biopic whose kinetic Grand Prix sequences are constantly being overshadowed by genuinely riveting scenes of ... people talking.
But then in a film written by Peter Morgan — of The Queen and Frost/Nixon — maybe it's no wonder that questions like why they drive, why they want to win and who they want to beat take center stage.
Rush investigates the psyche of the professional race driver through personal moments on the way to loss and victory, and specifically through the twin lenses of Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda, whose considerable talents (and egos) led to an intense rivalry that defined Formula One in the 1970s.
Lauda and Hunt meet in Formula Three, a kind of farm-team race circuit in which Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), as the movie opens, has already developed a reputation as an incorrigible ladies' man and a racer with a near-reckless desire to win. He lives for the thrill of facing death and barely dodging it, and Hemsworth makes his brash, devil-may-care swagger thoroughly seductive, even as you're aware of the downsides of a thrill-seeking personality.
The Salieri to Hunt's Mozart is the coldly calculating, no-nonsense Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), whose personality repels most everybody even as he backs up his matter-of-fact confidence with results. The Austrian's serious-mindedness means he barely even shows off, instead putting in the hours training his body and examining every inch of his vehicle to tweak it for maximum speed.
As the tactless and nearly charisma-free Lauda, Bruhl clearly relishes playing up the character's off-putting qualities, demonstrated best when Lauda moves up to the Formula One class, signs with the prestigious Ferrari team and begins berating the crew with claims that their decorated car handles like a cow. Disgusted by Hunt's braggadocio and lack of professionalism, Lauda makes it a point in every race to edge out the Englishman, who naturally loathes Lauda's approach to the sport.
Covering 6 years and two world-championship contests, Rush tracks a narrow enough time frame to delve deep into Hunt and Lauda's ambitions, personal lives and perspectives on racing. Each makes sacrifices to do what he does, not the least of which being the choice to commit to a job that can make you feel alive right before it kills you.
Director Ron Howard doesn't shy away from the incredible danger in the sport, lingering on gruesome images of driver injuries and deaths long after it's been communicated that something terrible has happened. It's a choice that may antagonize (or nauseate) some audiences, but it seems intended to do so — to bring drivers otherwise seen distantly on a TV screen into focus as humans.
Howard chooses a few moments to let the film breathe, but for the most part — aside from a clunky first-person narration that book-ends the film — he propels Rush from scene to scene with a momentum that never lets the thing drag. It's forgivable but still perplexing, then, that the director isn't quite sure how to best evoke a race on screen. Is it in the firing of the engine? The face of the driver? Their point-of-view? In the motion of the tires? The grass blowing by? Or is it the crowd watching from the stands?
For Howard, the answer is everything, in rotation. It makes for a lively experience, but one that hasn't decided whether to embody what it means to watch a Formula One race or to drive in one.
The pleasure of seeing Lauda and Hunt square off drives the film satisfyingly forward, but it's the pleasure of seeing Hemsworth and Bruhl play with such expertly characterized and contrasted characters that elevates Rush from a story of a sporting rivalry to a fuller portrait of complex individuals. Drastically different in attitudes, Lauda and Hunt often appear to be two sides of a coin — Hunt could benefit from Lauda's discipline, while Lauda desperately could use Hunt's ability to enjoy himself.
Yet you get the sense that their excesses are what make them special. Balance those qualities, and they wouldn't be the fierce competitors they are. It's a rare biopic that can distill the essence of its subjects with such satisfying clarity. (Recommended)