If the old sporting maxim of participation being more important than winning were true, would we ever have seen great dramatic rivalries that proved as riveting as the sports themselves? Evert vs. Navratilova. Liverpool vs. Manchester United. Ali vs. Frazier. The high-octane environs of Formula One are conducive to bouts of one-upmanship (think Mansell vs. Piquet, or Prost vs. Senna), but arguably the most infamous of the F1 rivalries was that between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and in particular their battle for the Driver’s Championship in 1976. The intricacies of this love-hate relationship are painted in director Ron Howard’s trademark broad strokes in Rush.”
The previous team-up between Howard and writer Peter Morgan resulted in the bone-dry awards bait that was Frost/Nixon. Unsurprisingly, Rush manages to move a good lick quicker, though it takes a good long while for it to approach top gear.
A prologue sets up the 1976 German Grand Prix, where events will subsequently take a turn and the real meat of the story is to be found. A voiceover from Lauda (Daniel Brühl) accompanies Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) swanning about his car before the race begins. He flaunts his blonde locks and curvy entourage whilst Lauda sits in his car with both eyes on the prize. Any F1 enthusiasts will tell you this day ends badly, but before we do that Morgan and Howard feel the need to frame this rivalry within the well-worn and familiar confines of a biopic
We are brought back to the early 1970s to watch these two young hotshots work their way up their respective leagues. Lauda cobbles his own funds together to put his own team together, much to his father’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Hunt’s rich buddy Hesketh (Christian McKay) sponsors him all the way to Formula Three, where the Englishman and Austrian eventually meet and the animosity begins. In portraying the rivalry, it helps that the two have as many similarities as differences. The main similarity is unquestionably their cockiness; Hunt’s maverick charm and Lauda’s precise strategizing gives Morgan a chance to inject some humour into his script. Hunt shows no hesitation in seducing an attending nurse after a crash/fight, and Lauda is unrepentant when he declares to Ferrari team owners that their car is a shitbox. Offering subtle nuance where the dialogue offers little, Hemsworth and Brühl turn the cockiness to their advantage in likeable performances.
Yet despite these humorous streaks, Rush’s slick look and clever lines cannot cover up the fact that underneath the hood lies the engine of a biopic. Considering the spate of films we’ve had lately that are ‘based on true events’, it may be time for anyone seeking an award to look elsewhere before they all start blending into one another. Between this, Behind The Candelabra, The Look Of Love and The Bling Ring, it’s less déjà-vu and more déjà-vis. Before the central events of the Nurburgring, we must see Hunt and Lauda meet their wives (Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively) and build their reputations, as formula dictates.
Howard boasts little imagination when it comes to narrative, and Morgan’s box-ticking script compounds his skillset with a steady rise to fame followed by tragedy and a redemptive third act. Be that as it may, he has other skills to enliven proceedings, not least of which is an eye for period detail. The 1970s style is brought to vivid life in the cars and the costumes. We then watch said cars whizz by in a series of undeniably thrilling routs on the racetrack. The camera lays low on a chicane, the cars zoom by and Anthony Dod Mantle’s ever-superb lensing captures every rippling raindrop and every vibrating blade of grass.
When the opportunity comes along, Rush does just that; it rushes by in a dervish of bleached retro vibes and pounding drum beats (courtesy of Hans Zimmer, natch). Those opportunities only arrive after plot beats that are well signposted by design. Rush is reminiscent of Formula One in the late 1990s, when Schumacher was king. Plenty of high-octane thrills and the occassional surprise don’t mean you don’t know how it’s going to end.