Saturday 5 October 2013

Movie Review: Rush (2013)

An intense rivalry speeding in the lush valley between glory and death, Rush recreates the turbulent 1976 Formula 1 motor racing season, and the epic battle for the title between defending champion Niki Lauda and challenger James Hunt.

It's the early 1970s, and Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is making a name for himself in the lower leagues of open wheel racing. Young, brash and living the life of alcohol, sex, drugs and more sex, Hunt's natural talent gets him a ride with a private team funded by playful millionaire Alexander Hesketh (Christian McKay). Meanwhile, Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is also climbing the racing ranks, having turned his back on the business opportunities provided by his well-heeled family. The antithesis of Hunt, Lauda is cold, calculating and single-mindedly focused on winning. He buys his way into Formula 1 with the struggling BRM team, while Hesketh also steps up to the top echelon.

Lauda quickly moves to the prestigious Ferrari team, meets future wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), and in 1975 seals his first world title, with Hunt still struggling in inferior equipment. Hunt marries glamorous model Suzi Miller (Olivia Wilde), but their marriage is soon on the rocks, and things look really bleak when Hesketh's financial losses force a withdrawal from the sport. But the front-running McLaren team unexpectedly lose their top driver and turn to Hunt as a replacement. The scene is set for the 1976 season, with Lauda expecting to easily defend his throne, and Hunt equally determined to prove that he belongs at the top of the sport. The season would include controversy, disqualification, a near fatal crash, and a climax in the torrential rain at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The 1976 Formula 1 season is the stuff of legend, the type of sports drama that, as fiction, would be considered outlandish. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan deserve credit for faithfully recreating in Rush a moment in time when all the ingredients came together to create an unforgettable championship battle. In a sport that, at the time, married gung-ho magnetism to a ridiculously high risk of fatal crashes, one or two deaths per year was still considered normal. The racers attracted to the sport where either daredevils like Hunt or calculating perfectionists from the Lauda breed, and all of them needed to possess a mix of self-confidence and a sense of invincibility to shake hands with mortality at every corner.

Rush also wades into the sport's arcane but fascinating technical battles. By the mid-1970s commercial interests had started to become more important, the money flowed, and behind the scenes politics started to exert a huge influence. Hence top teams like Ferrari and McLaren started arguing about every inch, literally, and legal interpretations of the regulations became a sport within the sport. Hunt and Lauda's on-track rivalry was augmented by accusations of cheating and rule bending that further heightened the tension, resulting in disqualifications, appeals and reinstatements. Morgan actually simplifies some of the major controversies to keep the spotlight on the drivers.

And Rush is, ultimately, about the two drivers. The film steers far from heroism and presents both Hunt as Lauda as supremely talented racers with very human characteristics. Both are fallible, both can be rude and dismissive, and both are self-centred. And yet they are polar opposites, driven to the top of the sport by completely different motivations. Their rivalry, at least in 1976, propelled them both towards achievements greater than either would have accomplished without the other. Ironically, Rush places more emphasis than necessary on the friction points between the two men, who, in reality, where closer friends than inferred by the film.

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are both excellent, quickly settling into the personalities of the drivers. Hemsworth gets the showier role and polishes Hunt's flash-in-the-pan, fun-loving persona to a shine. Brühl generates the necessary intensity as the methodical, in-for-the-long-term Lauda, in a performance that is deeper, and ultimately, more poignant, as Lauda's rationality and force of will is severely tested more than once during the course of the season.

The on-track sequences are superb. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle capture the thrilling speed generated by the sleek Formula 1 machinery, and never go over the top in exaggerating the racing action. The recreations of the fiery crash at the Nurburgring track and the final, monsoon-drenched race in Japan are handled particularly brilliantly.

In a race to the chequered flag, Rush crosses the finish line first, triumphant in chronicling a celebrated rivalry between equal yet opposite competitors.

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