Most good stories have a moment where they shift into a higher gear. With Ron Howard’s Rush, that moment comes when the Ferrari driven by Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda is involved in a terrifying crash at Germany’s notorious Nürburgring circuit. The film’s recreation of this historic event from 1976 is hard-hitting and visceral. I knew it was coming, but it set my pulse racing all the same. And so it should. It’s the moment about which the entire film pivots.
I might even stick my neck out and say the Nürburgring race is one of the best bits of cinema I’ve seen this year.
Not that Rush is all about racing and crashing. Daniel Brühl is outstanding as the obsessive Lauda, while Chris Hemsworth plays the raffish Hunt with both gusto and sensitivity. Peter Morgan’s intelligent screenplay gives both actors plenty of opportunity to stretch their chops, while at the same time explaining just enough of the practicalities and politics of Formula 1 to keep the average moviegoer on track.
Ron Howard’s direction – greatly aided by Anthony Dod Mantle’s energetic and colourful cinematography – deftly evokes the giddy spirit of the 1970s. It’s clear he loves his actors, but it’s equally clear he knows the audience expects to see tons of high-octane motor racing action. This he delivers – in spades. If you doubt how much of the motor racing was done for real, just look at the long list of “Precision Drivers” in the credits. At the same time, note that another major credit reads: “with the participation of Double Negative”. The enormous contribution of this UK visual effects facility to the race sequences will go unnoticed by the majority of the viewing public. Which is just how it should be.
But the fiery, beating heart of Rush is that fateful crash. It’s also where the film’s only difficulty lies. Early on, Hunt and Lauda are firmly established as a pair of extremists, each driver pursuing glory for very different reasons. As such, neither of them is entirely likeable. There were moments during the first half when I wondered if Howard had dropped the ball by not making me care enough about these men.
Then came that heart-stopping moment at Nürburgring. Followed by the entire second half of the movie. Not only did the action step up, but suddenly I discovered I was rooting for both of these damaged, delirious drivers – had been rooting for them all along, in fact. As the final races unfolded, and the human drama played itself out, I decided this was exactly what Morgan and Howard had intended. Rather than soften up the early scenes, they’d allowed Hemsworth and Lauda to take the hard line. A high risk strategy, one that hinged entirely on the Nürburgring crash and its aftermath. A strategy that worked like a dream.
In Rush, Hunt and Lauda are portrayed as eternal antagonists, each driving the other to become greater than they could ever have been alone. They are two opposing halves who – against all the odds – make a whole. This film about their lives has two halves as well. Put together, the whole they make is pretty great too.
Thanks to Joe Fordham for the heads-up about those credit roll highlights!