“Rush” Movie Review

      Sports films can be tricky.  To attract a mainstream American audience, your best chance is to choose a story to tell that is centered on a sport with wild popularity in the United States.  Ron Howard’s new film “Rush” has plenty going for it with an outstanding cast driven by the director’s proven ability to tell a story at the highest level.  The issue some may have to deal with is the lack of popularity of the film’s setting, Formula One racing, which still today maintains massive appeal in Europe and abroad, but isn’t close to mainstream with Americans who prefer Nascar instead.  Nonetheless, Howard has crafted an excellent film based a true story that took place during the 1976 Formula One racing season and stands as one of the most thrilling in it’s history.

     We’re quickly introduced to James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).  A brash, confident driver looking for his chance to make it big, Hunt is a star in one of the lower level circuits and dreams of someday being part of a Formula One team.  During a race in the early 70s, Hunt skillfully disables the vehicle of another competitor named Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), resulting in him going on to win.  This quickly starts a rivalry with Lauda as the duo makes their way via different means to the Formula One circuit.  Hunt is risk taker, willing to do what ever it takes to win while on the track.  Lauda, a fine driver in his own right, prefers to outthink opponents before they ever get on the track by utilizing technology and building lighter more powerful cars.

     Lauda eventually is signed by Ferrari, mainly because of his expertise in building vehicles from the ground up, but also for his dedication to the science of what makes a car perform.  In an early scene, Lauda is able to predict everything that will eventually go wrong with a car just by driving it and analyzing how it performs.  Hunt on the other hand is the lead driver for his own team until the investor behind it goes broke.  This forces him to seek a spot on another team, which he earns after his fiery performances in several notable races.

     Howard leads us through the driver’s various relationships, Hunt with model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) and Lauda with his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), each playing an essential role in the ability of our leads to flourish.  Hunt’s lifestyle and demeanor proves too much Suzy, who eventually leaves him, but Marlene sticks with Lauda through one of the most tragic sequences in the film and is most certainly a significant catalyst in his recovery.  It’s amazing to see how these men handle their relationships seems to mirror how they do during various races.  No doubt one’s personal life has a massive impact on their performance at work, no matter what the job is, but in this type of sport, one mistake can prove disastrous as Lauda finds out.

     During a crucial point in the 1976 season, with Lauda dominating the competition, he wrecks on a rain soaked course that had to receive the go ahead in a vote of the drivers in order to even proceed.  That debate and subsequent vote was spearheaded by Hunt and the result should have been predictable, but Lauda is the type who would never back down.  The crash causes Lauda’s fuel tank to explode and his body is engulfed in flames, trapped for what seems like an eternity as the fire crew makes their way to the incident.  Lauda is burned on the outside, but more seriously, is burned inside his lungs as well.  Howard stages a series of gut wrenching scenes in which Lauda must endure a foot long plus tube down his throat as the doctors vacuum debris out of his lungs.  It’s notable that during these scenes, Lauda is watching the races he’s missing on television as his rival Hunt steadily catches up to him in points during his absence.  As Hunt wins, Lauda orders the doctor to continue the painful procedure as he knows it will put him one step closer to racing again.

     In a miraculous recovery, Lauda races nearly 6 weeks after his accident.  His face is grotesquely burned, his ears missing, and his hair is still missing from one side of his head, but he tells Hunt in person that it was he who is responsible for his quick recovery due to his intense desire to return and compete against his rival.  We’ve seen this many times in sports history, perhaps the most notable being the Magic versus Bird rivalry in the 80s NBA, as rivals force each other to achieve heights they never thought possible just so they can prevail when it matters most.  Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One or racing in general, as a sports fan, you’re bound to marvel at the lengths these two guys went in order to win.  Perhaps Lauda had to endure more physical and mental hardship, but Hunt’s desire to win also took an incredible toll on his future.  It’s as if he gave everything he had left during that one 1976 season where he saw an opportunity within his grasp.

     It’s no surprise to me Howard was able to pull this off.  Again, like racing or not, the Formula One sequences are awe inspiring.  Howard skillfully mixes live action with CGI to accurately recreate all of the major races in 1976 and does so in a convincing and seamless manner with all tech aspects executed flawlessly.  The script by “Frost/Nixon” vet Peter Morgan allows both Hemsworth and Bruhl to portray their character’s personalities effectively while conveying to the audience what exactly was the driving force behind their incredible will to win at any cost.  By the film’s end, you have such a thorough understanding of each of these two competitors that you almost can’t help but appreciate their sport enough to maybe catch a race or two.  As is appropriate, Howard validates the film with footage of both of the real life men at the end with Lauda sharing what became of them after that memorable season. GRADE: A-