If the story of the rivalry between death-defying Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda and their stunning duel in 1976 were a work of fiction, many would brand it overly contrived and implausible. Yet, somehow, it happened. But could director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who combined superbly to bring a similarly contentious clash to the screens with Frost/Nixon, manage to do full justice to this adrenalin-fuelled tale? Not quite.
Despite their best intentions, exhilarating race sequences and an Oscar-worthy turn from Daniel Brühl as Lauda, Rush fails to fully satisfy because it doesn't delve deep enough into the psyches of men who risked their lives in often treacherous racetrack conditions in the pursuit of victory. What kind of fuel are their minds running on?
The film follows Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda through and beyond their early years on the amateur racing circuit, as they both overcome either financial or familial obstacles to reach the heights of Formula One. Their wildly contrasting methods and personalities cause a fierce rivalry to emerge, with Hunt's reckless hedonism and Lauda's scientific precision throwing them onto a collision course. A horrific crash soon puts everything into perspective.
The narrative framework of Rush involves toggling between the perspectives of the two drivers, with decidedly mixed results due to the lack of sustained focus on either man's motivations. Despite Chris Hemsworth admirably imbuing the role with the affability and compassion it deserved, James Hunt's complex and self-destructive psyche feels glossed over in favour of depicting him as the debonair playboy that the press paraded him as. One half expects him to deploy the trademark Roger Moore eyebrow raise at various points.
Harnessing such a fascinating true tale into the confines of a two-hour movie would be extremely tough work for any writer, even the brilliant Peter Morgan, and sacrifices clearly had to be made. But it's frustrating to see Hunt throwing up before every race and not explore the mechanisms of his mind further and why he kept putting himself through the ordeal.
We're given little sense of the circumstances or compulsions that have propelled him to treat life and a procession of love interests, played by the underused likes of Olivia Wilde and Natalie Dormer, in the wanton way that he does. A few expositionary lines of dialogue about the sexy nature of this 'closeness to death' don't feel sufficient.
The treatment of Niki Lauda, a remarkable figure who served as an advisor during the movie, fares a lot better once the characterisation manages to transcend an inauspicious start in which he comes across as too much of a comedy villain. Fortunately, Daniel Brühl is a masterful chameleon, superbly imitating Lauda's acerbic and tactless disposition alongside his physical and verbal mannerisms.
In lesser hands, Lauda could have been perceived as little more than an impenetrable oddball, but as the story progresses his spirit burrows into your soul to extract a great deal of respect. In particular, the harrowing hospital-based scenes involving the wounded driver and his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) should leave a strong mark on those with a healthy degree of compassion and empathy.
Not unlike the meticulous methods and planning used by Lauda to become the master of his domain, director Ron Howard's technical precision and camera positioning during the race sequences lead to superb results. It feels like we're immersed inside the car, with the smell of burning rubber permeating our nostrils and the cacophonous sound of screeching tyres blaring in our ears.
The thunderous racing scenes at a rainy Japanese Grand Prix during the movie's climax serve to heighten the emotions of the perilous situation for the protagonists. At this point, sight, sound and story all fuse into an impressively cohesive whole that help the movie zoom past the finish line after shakier beginnings.
Despite its flaws, Rush is an admirable effort to represent the interweaving fortunes of two sporting legends. The bulk of the criticisms perhaps stem from there being no conceivable way that art could ever reach the dramatic or emotional heights of the reality, in much the same way that the racing documentary Senna could never be topped by a straightforward movie retelling.
If this movie compels enough viewers to scour Google and YouTube to explore the lives of these extraordinary men in greater detail, then the makers of Rush can crack open that celebratory champagne.