Many A-list Hollywood-trained directors from the 1980s and ’90s have fallen by the wayside; for every Steven Spielberg or Kathryn Bigelow, there’s a Rob Reiner or Penny Marshall. For a while, Ron Howard looked like he was going to join the fallen. He may still get there — he helmed the leaden comedy The Dilemma not so long ago. However, his recent collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan has given his career a second wind, producing 2008’s Frost/Nixon and now the auto racing movie Rush, a piece of intelligent, mainstream adult fare that also happens to be an exhilarating sports film.
The movie’s subject is the real-life rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, which transfixed the world of Formula One racing during the 1970s. The contrast between the flamboyant, hard-living, thrill-seeking Englishman Hunt and the brusque, sour-faced, businesslike Austrian Lauda couldn’t have been more pronounced, and the two drivers’ genuine dislike for each other just spiced up the rivalry. Hunt had a well-earned reputation for recklessness, yet it was the ultra-cautious Lauda who burned almost to death during a horrific crash in Germany in 1976. Most of the story takes place during that fateful racing season, when the champion Lauda somehow came back from crippling injuries to defend his title.
It’s not often that we speak of chemistry between actors who are portraying enemies, but Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) display it through several scenes together, giving us a sense of these bitter rivals gradually gaining respect for each other’s skills and will to win. If you’ve seen Hemsworth only as Thor or in Snow White and the Huntsman, you may be surprised to find that the Australian actor is more than just a pretty boy with big muscles. He flashes an easy charm in the opening scene when James visits a hospital and effortlessly seduces a trauma nurse (Natalie Dormer), but his fidgety performance lets us see the simmering discontent and unfulfilled ambition behind the playboy facade.
As for Brühl (the German-Spanish actor who played the Nazi sniper in Inglourious Basterds), he manages to make Niki’s humorless arrogance entertaining as he cuts through pleasantries and poetry about the sport. Watch as Niki, newly signed on to Ferrari’s racing team, takes his first spin in one of their cars and immediately scandalizes the Italians around him by dismissing the car as a “shitbox”: “It’s amazing! You have all these facilities and you build a piece of crap like this!”
Morgan is best known for writing The Queen, but he’s no stranger to sports, having also penned the excellent British soccer drama The Damned United. Like politics, sports provides him with a theater of oversized personalities and public feuds to work with, and he’s very much at home in the milieu. There’s a nifty little scene when Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino), freshly replaced by Niki as his team’s No. 1 racer, gets back at him by torpedoing his date with a pretty track manager, slyly playing it like he’s being helpful: “We share information. That’s what teammates are for.” The movie is brimming with quotable lines. (Hunt: “Don’t go to men willing to kill themselves driving in circles looking for normality.” Lauda: “God gave me an OK mind but a good ass to feel all the vibrations in the car.”) You might not think of good writing as a top priority in an auto racing movie, but the dialogue here makes the movie funny even when the engines are idle. It also fleshes out the men in these cars and the people around them.
That, in turn, sets the stage for the film’s racing sequences. Howard reaps the benefit of the 1976 season’s nail-biting culmination in a downpour in Japan, where Hunt and Lauda, by turns, each seem to have won and lost the championship. His rendering of this is excellent, but it still doesn’t match the scene at the Italian Grand Prix, a mere seven weeks after Lauda’s accident, where Niki races despite excruciating pain and charges from the back of the pack to finish an unlikely fourth, prompting fans to swarm the track to salute his courage. It’s maybe the most thrilling moment in any Ron Howard film, and it’s exactly the kind of thing we go to sports and sports movies to see.
Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan. Rated R.