Like Senna (2010), Rush makes Formula One racing accessible by looking at one of its most celebrated rivalries. The matchup here is between Austria’s Niki Lauda and Britain’s James Hunt, a contest that came to a head in 1976. Lauda was defending his world-championship title; Hunt was gunning for his first. As Peter Morgan’s screenplay has it, the two men made for a total contrast in racing styles: Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) thrived on fame, instinct, and his throngs of adoring female fans. Lauda (Daniel Brühl) prided himself on rationality; he was more interested in racking up points over an entire season than in eking out a few daredevil victories. Both men came from families who disapproved of their profession. Together, the film argues, the pair did as much to goad each other to their respective victories as any coaches or fans ever could.
Rush, in other words, is a foursquare sportsmanship movie, offering little in the way of surprises but plenty of earnest, satisfying thrills. Ron Howard, who previously collaborated with Morgan on 2008’s Frost/Nixon, is often pegged as a poster boy for middlebrow moviemaking, yet he can be a superior craftsman. While Rush isn’t as immersive or fully realized as his Cinderella Man, the racing sequences are as crowd-pleasing (and horrifying) as one would hope. The editing keeps each grand prix remarkably clear; especially as the clock winds down, it’s almost possible to feel the grinding motors and splashing mud.
Off-track is where the movie swerves a bit, hampered by an intermittent voiceover and the usual biopic boilerplate. (“When do we start?” “As soon as you’re ready.” “Ready? I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”) The men’s personal lives prove less compelling than their driving. Rush dawdles on Hunt’s strained relationships (though an English-accented Olivia Wilde, as the driver’s model-wife Suzy, barely logs any screen time before she runs off with Richard Burton), and there’s also the suggestion that Lauda, the more amiable of the pair despite his relative lack of good looks, cruelly disregarded the wishes of his spouse (Alexandra Maria Lara). What’s most intriguing is the gamesmanship. In the best scene, Lauda—motivated in equal measure by his first-place standing and common sense—calls a vote on whether to cancel a race at Germany’s Nürburgring. Lauda argues that the event can’t proceed because rain has made the track too dangerous; he won’t get in a car, he says, if there’s higher than precisely 20 percent chance that he’ll be killed. When even the fair-weather stakes are so high, Rush can’t help but be exciting.