Review: Rush (2013)

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Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Based on a true story
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer & Stephen Mangan
Runtime: 123 min // Certificate: 15

I went into this with a wary mind; it’s been about fifteen years since I watched Formula 1, and even then I only liked it for the PS1 games. I’m not a sports person full stop (unless it’s a pub sport…) so films about sport have a tendency to put me to sleep. Furthermore, I couldn’t care less about cars. If it can be driven that’s good enough for me. As you can imagine then, Rush was on a hiding-to-nothing before it even began… so I’m stunned that it impressed me quite as much as it did!

Rush acts as a recreation of the 1976 Formula 1 season, though it focuses primarily on the infamous rivalry between McLaren driver James Hunt (Hemsworth) – the British hedonist playboy – and Ferrari driver Niki Lauda (Brühl) – the business-minded and religiously-focussed Austrian. After a brief exploration of how these two men first met, their initial hostility to each other and how they both came to be major players in Formula 1 racing, the film then hones in on one of the most memorable seasons in the sport’s history. Howard and Morgan recreate, with real verve and passion, the races, casualties and major backstage events that dominated said season, though the focus is always on the animosity between Hunt and Lauda rather than the intricacies of Formula 1, none of which are particularly interesting…

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What makes Rush stand out is that it is a persistently character-driven film. It is the type of film that will appeal to those with no knowledge of Formula 1 almost as much as it will appeal to the sport’s biggest fans because it focuses so heavily on the rivalry between these two bitterly opposed men. If you strip the film back to its core you’ll discover that it isn’t a film about Formula 1 any more than it’s a film about golf or the moon landings. No, what it is – above all else – is a film about people; what drives them, what motivates them and what causes them to do what they do. In the case of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, what seems to have driven them was their determination to prove each other wrong. The sport – at least for Hunt – is an irrelevance. It’s all about winning, in some vain attempt to prove that you’re the better man. It is for this reason that Rush, though a film set deep in the World of motor-racing, can appeal to a much wider audience than you might think. What’s important is not who wins which race or how the cars work; no, what matters is why these two men acted the way that they did.

There is a lot to admire about Howard’s film, not least the performances (which I’ll come to shortly), and his love of the story he is telling is apparent from the offset. The film is a passionate retelling of a fascinating story, so it’s easy for the audience to get swept up in the drama and invest in these two men, neither of whom – let’s be honest – are what you might call likable. Despite its somewhat narrow focus, Rush manages demonstrates a lot of depth and Morgan’s screenplay explores everything from the corporatisation of sport to the detrimental effects of sports stars being treated as celebrities. Though it’s set in the seventies the film has a contemporary edge that sets it apart from others of its ilk, meaning that even an F1 amateur like me can find much to sink their teeth into.

Now, with a film like this it’s often difficult to stay on the right side of the line between recreation and mimicry, but Howard’s approach to the material – a significant portion of which is little more than a recreation of races from the 1976 season – is fresh and exciting. Like the cars themselves, the direction is fast, vibrant and just a little bit unpredictable; Howard jumps between stock-footage, recreations of famous scenes and new material in such a manner that even someone who knows Formula 1 like the back of their hand will find the whole thing terribly exciting. The film bounces along at a rapid pace yet the focus is always on the characters rather than the racing. There’s always a danger that a film that depicts real sporting history will simply descend into a match-by-match (or in this case, race-by-race) run through of what happened, but Rush avoids this trap easily. Nevertheless, on those occasions when Rush does indulge in some simple “race” scenes, it still manages to be wonderfully engaging. As someone who had no idea who even won the 1976 season before I watched this film, the thrill of following the season was more than enough to keep me entertained… and I don’t even like Formula 1!

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There is a wealth of talent involved in Rush, though no-one is greater than Daniel Brühl who is sensational as Niki Lauda. Hemsworth, for what it’s worth, does a great job of portraying Hunt but I could never quite shake the feeling that he was just playing an idealised version of himself, but Brühl steals the show with his turn as the embittered but determined Lauda. Though both characters are clearly complex, it is Lauda with whom the audience is encouraged to feel the most sympathy though Brühl’s performance is such that we never really like him, even though we respect him. His relationship with Hunt never descends into parody – indeed, it’s one of the most believable rivalries I’ve seen in quite some time – and the film stresses their mutual respect for each other without ever feeling manufactured or mawkish.

Rush isn’t perfect; it’s about fifteen minutes too long, and the portrayal of Hunt is occasionally a bit one-dimensional, but these are minor issues. It is a film that understands the importance of strong storytelling, and it is one that captures the aesthetic of the era without sacrificing the timeless human themes that make the story so powerful and engaging. The combination of Howard’s direction and Morgan’s screenplay results in a film that is consistently entertaining and surprisingly profound, albeit one that sometimes feels a little bit repetitive. There’s no denying that Rush is a great bit of drama which approaches its subject matter with respect, grace and good humour, meaning that whether you’re a fan of F1 or not it has a great rewatchability quality.

Believe the hype; Rush is a great film and one that shows that Ron Howard is still one of the best directors working today.