The last time director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan worked together, it was on “Frost/Nixon,” a crafty and illuminating cat-and-mouse psychological thriller that pitted interviewer David Frost against still-roaring lion in winter Richard Nixon.
With “Rush,” the filmmakers are in harness again, and again their fascination lies with two strong-willed men of diametrically opposed temperaments. Ostensibly about the rivalry between Formula One racecar drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), which reached its zenith in the explosively dramatic 1976 season, “Rush” is also an old-fashioned morality tale, an iteration of the Ant and the Grasshopper with fast cars, spectacular smash-ups, fierce competition and the kind of cutthroat, grudgingly respectful one-upsmanship of which so many classic male-bonding myths are made.
Beginning in 1976, when Hunt and Lauda played their own cat-and-mouse game through a series of Grand Prix races, “Rush” flashes back six years earlier, when Hunt — a handsome blond playboy — first meets Lauda, a serious-minded Austrian with an unfortunate overbite and zero sense of humor. Both sons of prosperous bourgeois families, their similarities end there, with Hunt largely driving on instinct and adrenaline and Lauda taking a far more technical, analytical approach. Portrayed as a hot-headed, undisciplined risk-taker on the track and a legendary swordsman in bed, Hunt was like a shaggy 007 of the car-racing world; at one point, someone actually introduces him as “Hunt, James Hunt.”
While Hunt lives it up, dining on oysters and Champagne at races and capitalizing on the “aphrodisiacal effects of being close to death,” as he puts it at one point, Lauda keeps his head down, his humanity finally peeking through when he takes his future wife (and two awe-struck fans) on a breakneck joyride through the Italian countryside. Morgan’s script can be faulted for telling rather than showing too often, as the men deliver a few too many pat speeches in which they spell out What Our Rivalry Means. But Howard directs “Rush” with speed and jangly, jarring verve, bringing the races themselves to white-knuckled life and allowing the men’s stories to play out with only slightly predictable reversals, upsets and, inevitably, those hard lessons learned.
The most harrowing of those sequences happens during the German Grand Prix in 1976, when Lauda is horribly burned, at which point the film slows down to show his excruciating recovery in literally painstaking detail. The episode not only tempers Lauda’s resolve, but leaves him even less handsome than Britain’s perennial Golden Boy, who, even when he’s bingeing on alcohol and pot, seems destined for a life free of ordinary consequences.
As much escapist fun as “Rush” is as an adrenaline-juiced car-race movie, it’s most interesting as a rare depiction of male vanity, how physical attractiveness informs self-worth and potency, and the role beauty — so often the sole purview of women on screen — plays in men’s relationships and personal insecurities. It’s not surprising that Lauda earns the audience’s allegiance as the plain-looking, hard-working underdog of the pair; the twist is how much sympathy Hunt earns as the pretty one, who keeps his anxieties hidden beneath glib bonhomie and quiet bouts of pre-race nausea.
That viewers care at all about men who are joyless, bossy and arrogant on one hand and vain, shallow and arrogant on the other can be directly attributed to Bruhl and Hemsworth, each of whom imbues his character with enough personal charm to keep the audience invested as their cars keep going round and round.
Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Daniel P. Hanley deserve credit as well, for creating a crisp, well-told account that succeeds as a workaday biopic, glamorous period piece and portrayal of sports culture that seems quaintly scruffy seen from an era taken over by steroids, TV-ready narratives and endorsement deals. Considering the subject matter, “Rush” delivers the expected visceral jolts; what’s surprising is how endearing it is, even when its two protagonists are behaving like little more than boys with very fast toys.