DIRECTED BY Ron Howard
STARS Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl
From Argo to Zodiac, even the best attempts by Hollywood to adapt a true-life tale will result in some falsehoods being created for the screen. Timelines will be compressed for the sake of expedience, several real people will be reincarnated as one composite, and even irrefutable historical events will be altered to fall more in line with a filmmaker's particular vision (or bias). Rush, the latest picture from the Frost/Nixon team of director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan, relates the story of the bitter rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the highly competitive Formula 1 drivers who hated each other with a burning passion back in the 1970s.
There's just one thing: Lauda and Hunt were actually friends in real life. Oops.
Ah, well, damn veracity and full speed ahead. While dramatic license was clearly applied to give the film its skeletal outline, it gets so many other details right that it even has the full blessing of Lauda himself (Hunt passed away years ago). And it doesn't completely stint on the real-life dynamics of both men, who were fierce rivals on the racetrack and pursued markedly different lives off it.
The British Hunt (played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) is clearly the more outgoing of the pair, with a pronounced interest in sex (though it's not mentioned in the film, he claimed to have slept with more than 5,000 women), booze and a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He's animated and outgoing, and everyone wants to orbit his sunny presence. In contrast, the Austrian Lauda (played by German actor Daniel Brühl) is not very attractive (his nickname among drivers was "the rat," due to his prominent buck teeth), tends to show little emotion and holds most people around him in contempt. The film traces their initial forays into the world of racing, with the bulk of the running time focusing on the incredible 1976 season. Lauda is the reigning Formula 1 world champion after finishing first in 1975, and this new season finds the two men's on-track competition being played out until the very last race of the season, a dangerous, rain-battered excursion at the Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji.
As an actor, Howard made his adult debut in George Lucas' 1973 classic American Graffiti and had his first top-billed role in the 1976 Roger Corman production Eat My Dust; as a director, he made his bow with another Corman quickie, 1977's Grand Theft Auto. In short, car culture fits quite nicely in the Ron Howard catalog, and Rush allows the filmmaker to get back to that milieu. The shooting of the racing sequences don't really push the envelope in any discernible manner — after all, even an awful NASCAR flick like Days of Thunder looked good on the track. But they're nevertheless exquisitely staged and scored, with the talents of various Oscar winners — cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), the editing team of Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (Apollo 13) and composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King) — working in tandem to juice the proceedings.
There's always a chance in sports films that the scenes set away from the hard-hitting action won't measure up, but Morgan writes the two leading characters with such complexity that there's never a concern the drama will go flat. Initially, it's set up that Hunt will be the audience favorite while Lauda will be his nasty antagonist, and while the movie never completely dispels that notion (particularly thanks to a scene in which Lauda shows no pity for a driver just killed in an accident), it's balanced enough to allow sympathies to repeatedly shift. Hunt's increasing disregard for his first wife, fashion model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), reveals his ugly side (and it's smirk-inducing to see a man who drives cars in circles for a living disparage the career of a woman whose job of posing with products hardly seems any more frivolous than his). Meanwhile, a tragedy that involves Lauda has the effect — in addition to providing the piece with its most harrowing moments — of dramatically softening his character and making his outlook on life seem far more sensible than that of Hunt.
Between the excitement of the Formula 1 sequences and the excellent performances by Hemsworth and Brühler, even those who couldn't care less about auto racing — and who wouldn't know Niki Lauda or James Hunt from Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt — should get a premium rush from a film that never eases up on the entertainment value.
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