'Rush' Goes Inside Formula One and two of its titans
Several times in “Rush,” Ron Howard's excitingly torqued movie set in the Formula One race world, the camera gets so close to a driver's eye that you can see each trembling lash. It's a startlingly beautiful but also naked image, partly because there's no hiding for an actor when the camera gets that close. In moments like these, you're no longer watching a performance with its layers of art and technique: you've crossed the border between fiction and documentary to go eye to eye with another person's nervous system. Howard doesn't just want you to crawl inside a Formula One racecar, he also wants you to crawl inside its driver's head.
Specifically, he wants to get inside those of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), Formula One titans and rivals, who, in 1976, helped push the sport into mainstream consciousness. Both men were in their late 20s, they raced after each other while chasing the world championship over wet, dry and terrifyingly gnarly tracks. Tucked, very much alone, into open-wheel machines that could easily have become coffins, Hunt and Lauda cut corners and grazed death lap after lap — whooshing over racetracks, city streets and deceptively pastoral roads into the sort of sports legend that translates only occasionally into good cinema.
Built for speed on and off the track, Hunt was the pretty one -- a tall, blond, British playboy who transcended his middle-class background to become racing royalty. The shorter, slighter and darker Lauda was, by contrast, cruelly nicknamed the Rat because of his pronounced overbite. Hunt partied hard, while Lauda assumed the role of the frosty, teetotaling tactician. They were an ideally matched, telegenic, salable pair — the heartthrob and the master gearhead — whose differences in and out of their cars put a playful, at times anguished human face onto a sports story.
Shortly after the movie opens, Hunt is walking barefoot into a hospital, bleeding from the nose while still in his racing suit. He's a ravishing mess, and his effect on the room, which goes immediately silent, is unmistakably erotic. “Hunt, James Hunt,” he announces, echoing a familiar line. Best known for playing the comic-book hero Thor, Hemsworth is prettier than the all-too-real man he plays in “Rush.” Yet this surplus of beauty works for the role because the actor looks like the star that James Hunt became.
The scene of Hunt sauntering into a hospital also signals that, for all the machines and money, “Rush” is a human story about bodies, if ones almost always in furious motion. It's also about work, about finding “a drive,” as they say in racing, and keeping it, even after machines and people spectacularly fail. Lauda, who's seen buying his way into racing with loans, isn't a natural physical specimen or showman like Hunt. Yet one of the movie's deepening pleasures is how, as the story slyly shifts from one man to the other, it peels back the arrogance encasing Lauda, who's so abrasive that it's hard not to root against him, even as Brühl's dexterous, textured performance pulls you close.
Howard's first movie as a director was the tight little pleaser “Grand Theft Auto,” and while he has periodically offered up a surprise, he has often mired himself in commercial sludge like “The Da Vinci Code,” sporadically trying to break free with serious-minded prestige items, like “Frost/Nixon.” “Rush,” which is serious without being self-serious, fun without being trivial, feels like the movie that he has been waiting to make his whole life — it's no wonder that he climbs into the cockpits with the camera again and again. Having a good script makes a difference, as does a brilliant cinematographer like Anthony Dod Mantle, who, shooting in digital, paints the screen in stunning, saturated colors that put the story's extremes into vivid terms.
There are, shifting feet, trembling hands, shredding tires and the hard whine of machines that can feel like nothing other than needlessly reckless manifestations of human arrogance, like Icarus' wings — but with the Marlboro brand emblazoned on them. Every so often, Hunt and Lauda come briefly down to earth, as does the movie, especially whenever they resume their roles in their domestic dramas. In contrast to similar scenes in movies of this biographical type, these family interludes pass by swiftly and largely effortlessly, because the filmmakers know that these men were born to do one blissful thing: race to the heart-quickening finish.