It’s self-evident that race car drivers aren’t like the rest of us. At one point in the terrific action drama Rush, Formula One racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) tartly admonishes one of his many adoring/complaining female companions that she shouldn’t look for stability in men who, for a living, drive in circles at high speeds. What’s interesting about Ron Howard’s Rush is that, among the high-speed hijinx and horrific crashes, it’s at heart a character study of how two top drivers can be compelled to take outlandish risks for wildly different reasons.
Rush is based on the real-life, mid-1970s Formula One rivalry between British upper-class playboy Hunt and Austrian upper-class straight-arrow Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). While they share similar backgrounds—prominent families that disapprove of their chosen profession—they’re as different as night and day.
Hunt is in it for the thrill of the race and the spoils of victory—namely, top-shelf booze and beautiful women. For him, there’s no point without the afterparty. Lauda is, at heart, an engineer with a view of his gift that’s a combination of comically deadpan—he tells one woman that he owes it all to the ability of his ass to sense what’s wrong with a car—and humorlessly serious. They instinctively dislike and resent each other. On the surface, Hunt is the charming, likable rogue and Lauda is the asshole; by the end of the picture, thanks to the fine work of both Hemsworth and Bruhl, the audience gains a more complex view of each.
In some of his more self-consciously “epic” dramas—for example, the ones starring Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise—Howard has not been shy about sledgehammering his points home. Here, he does not. Instead, we have a portrait of a long-gone era in motor sports that’s presented in a way that reflects sober nuance and offhand wit. While it obviously remains quite dangerous today, in the 1970s Formula One was—from the vantage point of 2013—hilariously risky for both drivers and spectators. The viewer can’t help wondering why more people aren’t killed. Howard shows the sport’s fatal possibilities for drivers with sober restraint, and for spectators with the offhand, shocking image of a tire flying into the crowd. While the tire miraculously misses everyone, it’s still horrifying.
Since Rush is based on real sports history, the narrative is chained to the Formula One seasons of 1975 and ’76. But that’s what sports movies are, a race to the finish—and Howard has given us a doozy.