Thor-mula One: Rush Reviewed

Yasmeen Khan waves the chequered flag on the new motor racing biopic from Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s Rush is a film about winning and losing, sport, courage and heroism. From the opening scenes of roaring engines, voiceovers about “rebels, losers and dreamers” and gorgeous people having exciting sex, drinking champagne and driving fast cars, it promises a thrilling ride. Rush tells the story of the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). It pivots on the 1976 World Championships and Lauda’s terrible crash on the notorious “graveyard” of the Nürburgring during the German Grand Prix that year. Hunt and Lauda’s relationship is carefully constructed as a tale of opposites, two men with deeply contradictory value systems who turn out to be two sides of the same coin, each providing the other with some vital spark without which neither would have succeeded. Until you see your own recklessness through the lens of someone else’s courage or your own calculation contrasted with a rival’s popularity, you can’t fully reach the limits of your own potential, it says.

It’s an attractive story, perfect Hollywood blockbuster biopic material. Almost too perfect. Rush is in love with its own balance, above and beyond anything else. From the first time Hunt and Lauda meet at a Formula Three event in 1970, the two men clash over fundamental values. Lauda believes in preparation, efficiency and weighing risks. He’s in motor racing because he feels it’s what he’s talented at. Hunt is in it for the women, the excitement and the gentlemanly satisfaction of sporting honour. They’re opposites in every way, of course: Hunt’s beautiful and gregarious, and he and his crew take great pleasure in mocking Lauda‘s rat-like looks as well as his prickly, unsociable personality. In response, Lauda prides himself on his skill with technology and attention to detail, sees no need to make friends and treats sport like a business transaction. But Hunt has got a dark side, a self-destructive streak he indulges with booze, weed and philandering when he can’t drive. Driving is his drug of choice, his ultimate rush, and this is positioned against Lauda’s careful, joyless dependence on his survival instinct, his assertion that “rules are rules”. Glimpses into their backgrounds explain these differences – Lauda’s austere father in Vienna cuts the young Niki off financially for refusing to join the family business, while a bunch of posh friends push Hunt forward for the joy of winning, eschewing the grubby vulgarities of sponsorship.

At the heart of it is a love/hate, pseudo-homoerotic obsession; the men’s gazes are always seeking each other out in the crowd, they concentrate on each other to the exclusion of everyone else. Lauda, it’s hinted, wants a woman more when he hears she’s already slept with Hunt. And the point, the real hook, is that the men are closer than they could ever admit to one another. For all Lauda’s buttoned-up Germanic austerity, he’s as susceptible in his own way to the thrill of speed and the lure of sex as Hunt is. And for all Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude, he’s as deeply invested in winning as Lauda is. In their discussions about what it really means to be a champion, the men seem miles apart, but they’re both circling the same goal.

If this sounds quite pat, well, that’s because it is. All the conflicts bolster the narrative of the central rivalry at the expense of deeper characterisation; everything they do has to fit the pattern. This is ameliorated by the central performances, which are the film’s great strength. Brühl steals the show, bringing a lovely seriousness to Lauda, and Hemsworth is luminous, his smile lighting up this often gloomy, overcast film. Then again, many other characters are mostly cartoonish or one-dimensional, in service of the narrative. (Not all; Pierfrancesco Favino is understatedly excellent as Lauda’s Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni, for example.)

Rush also offers a portrait of motor racing in the early ‘70s, and neatly maps the competing forces at play in that era onto the central story. Hunt starts out driving for Lord Hesketh’s eccentric, independent outfit, personifying the gentlemanly, idealistic spirit of earlier years, while Lauda represents the corporate sponsorship and TV deals that encroached on and forcibly modernised the sport, raising its profile at the same time. There’s no clear cut right or wrong here; money has to come from somewhere, be it landed gentry or cigarette companies, and without it, there’s not much point discussing the philosophy of winning.

All of which is presented as a firmly masculine philosophy. In this film women hover in the background cheering on their men or worrying in silence. Sometimes they make comments about cars being boys’ toys. That’s not what Rush thinks, though. It unashamedly posits the romance of racing, the heady rush of real danger, the inherent glory of being willing to die for a chance of winning, as a masculine mindset, examining this proposition over and over again like a philosophical question without really questioning the fundamental assumptions behind it. It can’t, really. It’s not that sort of film.

The main problem with Rush is the kind of storytelling it has to employ to fulfil the expectations of a biopic. The pre-1976 scenes are actually just a series of vignettes, moments carefully chosen to bolster the central conflicts in the story. The film really comes to life with the first Grand Prix of ‘76 in Brazil. It finally begins to feel like the rivalry serves the storytelling instead of the other way round. For example, the scenes of Lauda in hospital after the crash in Germany, close to death, watching his rival gain points, are genuinely gripping (although hard to watch) and in a different league from the rather desultory rendering of Hunt’s struggles with drink and depression earlier on. The Japanese Grand Prix finally delivers the edge-of-the-seat tension promised from the beginning and the rest of the film starts to look like preamble by comparison.

Looks-wise, Rush is an intermittently beautiful film. The murky grey skies of England and Germany are as lovely as the hot suns of Monaco and Brazil. The feel of the ‘70s is created as much by the fuzzy photography as by the jackets and cars (highlights include Hunt’s Mini, a reminder that he began his career racing them, and the gorgeous Lancia Lauda drives in Italy the day he meets his wife). The scene of the final race, a rain-drenched Mount Fuji, looks like a series of exquisite, sombre watercolours. There’s a strange tension in the way the cars are shot, as if the film can’t decide if it wants to show a heavy, oily death-trap reality or a dream of light, precision-engineered speed.

There’s a lot of cliché in the script of Rush, but some surprising emotional honesty too, particularly in conversations Hunt and Lauda have with their wives on the subjects of love and happiness. Perhaps the subtlest achievement of the film is the way it questions whether either man actually even wants to be happy. “The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel,” says Hunt. The question at the heart of Rush is, is this stupid bravado or romantic heroism?. Is it brave to risk your life against awful odds or is it braver to risk accusations of cowardice and gamesmanship, walk away, and live? In the end, nothing is ever that simple, and for all the thrills and tension on the way, the film can’t provide an answer. Wisely, it doesn’t try to.

Rush is out in cinemas from today

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