West Germany. The Nurburgring racetrack. 1976, and the height of the Grand Prix season. There are two drivers the world is talking about, whose rivalry epitomises the excitement of the sport, and they are the British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) who was World Champion in 1975. But this race, staged in poor driving conditions, will prove dramatic for reasons other than intended, so let us return to 1970 and examine where the competition between these two men began as they were both Formula 3 drivers, Hunt backed by the wealthy Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) and Lauda striking out on his own thanks to near-scientific determination and talent...
Sporting rivalries often play better in real life than when they are translated to the movies, fictional or otherwise, but with Rush, which was largely the story of the 1976 Formula One season, a classic by any follower's standards, here was an exception. There were a number of reasons for this, one of them being the reteaming of writer Peter Morgan, a man very keen to dramatise real life events and make them so vivid as if you were watching history happen before your eyes, and Ron Howard, who may have been one of Hollywood's journeymen but was one of the most successful directors of his generation thanks to a wavering but by and large accurate idea of what audiences wished to watch on a night out at the cinema.
Howard, though often rightly accused of being a rather vanilla creator of motion pictures, had begun his directing career with a fast car exploitation flick for Roger Corman called Grand Theft Auto, and in some ways Rush was a neat throwback to that hit, which funnily enough had been one of his most purely enjoyable efforts. The seventies setting, the concentration on vehicular speed complete with excellent stuntwork from the drivers, that sense of spectacle as the engine which fuelled the rivalries the story depicted: they were things both had in common, though Rush was the one with more psychological heft. That the Hunt/Lauda relationship provided such rich pickings for an exciting yarn, even ending with a nailbiting finish whether you knew the outcome or not, offered solid entertainment.
That said, there was a functional quality to what Howard conjured up which prevented the film taking off in all sorts of possibly more inspired directions, but you could observe he had made the correct decision to shoot it like an action movie interspersed with sincere melodrama drawn from Morgan's take on events. Another aspect which played down the potential audacity a more risk-taking movie might have emphasised was the way Morgan proved he had done his homework by lacing the dialogue and set-ups with plenty of facts, certainly a few liberties were taken with real life (Hunt and Lauda were a lot friendlier off the track) but he made sure we knew everything from the ins and outs of the antagonists' marriages to Hunt's love of budgies and Lauda's manner of tweaking his vehicles to ensure they performed as well as possible.
Two elements stopped this from becoming textbook dry, which were the performances and the feel for what it was like to race on the track when an average of two drivers a year were being killed during the Grand Prix, with others suffering severe injury they were lucky to survive. Hemsworth, a star who could be accused of strictly of the pretty boy variety, more than demonstrated his thespian chops with an excellent impersonation of Hunt which went beyond that to convey a three-dimensional personality, though if anything Brühl was even better as the polar opposite to Hunt, a man driven by professionalism and a blindness to how arrogant he may appear. Funnily enough, there is a trait both men share other than loving the women in their lives which was why they developed a grudging respect, and that was hotheadness which Hunt concealed under his immense charm and Lauda under his icy cool under pressure. Each has to draw on these reserves when the German Grand Prix, with all its tensions and danger, offers the setpiece to a film which consistently impressed. Music by Hans Zimmer.