Screenwriter Peter Morgan definitely has a type: though he’s flexible, he favors dramas, based on recent history, that depict a war of wills between two strong and preferably famous individuals: Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Special Relationship. Now the director of Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard, brings us in Rush another Morgan match-up: 1970s Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
Rush proves most distinguished by its dual sympathies for British playboy Hunt (an impressive change of pace for Chris Hemsworth) and sour but focused Austrian driver Lauda (Daniel Brühl). They size each other up as they make their ways through the Formula Three circuit, and Morgan establishes their personalities both in their behaviors and in their traded-off narration of insights like “The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel” (the winning device of dual narration unfortunately gets dropped early on).
It’s not long before Rush arrives at the legendary 1976 Formula One season, but even then, Howard makes clear that it’s not about the races. They’re there, but rushed through kinetically edited montages so we can get back to the concerns of Hunt and Lauda in their careers (threatened by each other’s successes) and married lives (in underwritten turns, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara play Hemsworth and Brühl’s respective spouses).
Despite his brashness, Hunt vomits before every race, presumably due to a combination of performance anxiety and fear (he says of his car, “It’s just a little coffin, really…a bomb on wheels”), and he flashes his million-dollar smile for journalists even as he stews over personal trials. Depicted as antisocial and awkwardly no-nonsense, the screen Lauda muses to his new wife, “Happiness is the enemy.” He’s comfortable with being misunderstood (his overbite gets him called “rat”) as long as he gets the last laugh.
According to Lauda (who endorses the film), Rush overstates the rivalry between the two, which he says they left on the track when they went out on the town together. Morgan’s version is all about the tense banter between the two, which helps to characterize a fundamental difference in personality and viewpoint on the sport, life itself, and what constitutes “winning.” Morgan and Lauda agree that the rivals had mutual respect, though according to the screenwriter, it came along late in the 1976 season, inspired mostly by a life-changing accident during a race.
As Oscar bait goes, Rush probably won’t entrap voters, with the possible exception of Brühl, whose well-calibrated work is being touted for supporting-actor honors despite his being a co-lead. Morgan’s dialogue tips over into being too “script-y” here to be believed, and Howard’s work (an ironic bookend to his car-themed directing debut Grand Theft Auto) is typically slick, both overstated and undernourished when it comes to the drama. All the same, Rush makes for a pretty good fall night at the movies: fast and furious, but not too stupid.