Really good racing movies are quite rare. They tend to slalom between being too obsessed with the on-track action ("Le Mans") or serving as vehicles for the star persona of the actors appearing in them ("Days of Thunder").
Ron Howard's "Rush" hits the sweet groove down the middle of the lane, coming up with a compelling story based on the real-life rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 superstars James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). It's less a straight racing flick than a character portrait of two very different men who clashed violently in their contrasting approaches to pursuing the same goal. Brühl gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the driven, distant purist who relates better to machines than people.
But Howard and his crew hardly give the racing sequences short shrift. Mixing recreations of existing footage with special effects and camera work in and around the cars, they've created a high-velocity thrill ride that gives the audience a sense of the, well, rush of driving a 500-horsepower metal beast. The sound work is especially good, the engines sounding like the biggest, angriest buzzing bee in the world zooming in and around your head.
Hunt and Lauda were as different as two men can be. Hunt was a British playboy, a natural talent and thrill-seeker whose aggressive moves on the track make him a dangerous but formidable opponent. He beds women prodigiously, boozes and smokes, and is quick as lightning behind the wheel.
Lauda was an Austrian (but dismissed as a "Kraut" by Hunt and his fellows) from a family of businessmen, who approached world-class racing with methodical precision. He knows every piece of his car better than the mechanics who built it, and can tell what's wrong with how it drives just through the vibrations it sends through his body. (My mind is pretty good, he says, but I was born with a great ass -- which is as close to a joke as Lauda gets.)
There's one telling scene where Lauda, stranded with his would-be girlfriend on a lonely road, is picked up by some racing fans who beg him to drive their car for him. This he does, but the women scolds him for driving "like a grandfather." Lauda is genuinely perplexed: Why would he risk an accident when he's not being paid for it? He can handle risk at his job, but if he found something less risky that paid better, he says he'd do that instead -- and we believe him.
The movie quickly -- and wisely -- skips over their rise from the lower tiers of racing to their campaign in the big leagues. Their 1976 contest for the Formula 1 championship is still the stuff of legends, with Lauda driving for the Ferrari team and Hunt his match in a McLaren car. They traded victories and taunts with equal relish.
I'm not giving anything away by revealing that toward the end of the season Lauda had a horrific crash (which has always been suspected to be caused by a failure in his suspension, something Howard explicitly points to as the reason). This was at a time when Formula 1 had a handful of drivers die every year. Lauda spent more than a minute trapped in his car roasting in 800 degree flames, suffering severe burns to his face after his helmet slipped off.
Howard depicts the crash and its aftermath with a stark, unblinking eye. Perhaps the most teeth-grating thing to watch is Lauda having to repeatedly have his lungs "vacuumed" of debris from the fire. Of course, he watches Hunt racing and winning on an omnipresent television, closing the gap on his points lead while he endures the pain.
The apex of the story would be dismissed as the fantasies of a Hollywood screenwriter if it hadn't actually happened. Just six weeks after his crash, the skin grafts on his face still raw and bloody, Lauda climbed back into a racing car to continue his struggle against Hunt. The eventual winner would take the championship by a single point.
The once-bitter enemies find themselves growing a strange sort of respect for each other, which surprises even them. The dashing Hunt had often mocked the uncomely Lauda for his rat-like appearance, and even jokes that he was the only man who could have his face burnt off and it be an improvement. Yet when a journalist pesters Lauda with invasive questions about how his appearance will affect his marriage, it's Hunt who rallies to his defense.
The film starts with Hunt the clear center of attention, but in the end it becomes Lauda's tale to tell. Here is a man so closed off from others that he complains to his new bride on their honeymoon that having something to lose will weaken him as a driver. Yet in his competition with Hunt he found his own best self, leading him to unexpected but fully satisfying choices.
"Hunt was one of the few I liked, and fewer still that I respected," Lauda narrates. "He remains the only person I ever envied."
I have a feeling anyone with dreams of making a film about racing will say something similar about "Rush."