It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Ron Howard and Peter Morgan love history. One look at their collective filmographies reveals several projects based on true stories and real-life figures. The latter, in particular, is responsible for writing some of the best historical dramas of the past decade, but sadly, “Rush” is not one of them. Though there’s a lot to like about Howard and Morgan’s latest movie – particularly the chemistry and performances of its two leading men – it’s not nearly as thrilling or fascinating as their last collaboration (“Frost/Nixon”). “Rush” teeters on the edge of being a really good film, but despite some fantastic source material, it never fully seizes the opportunity.
Based on the true story of the 1976 Formula One season and the heated rivalry between British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and reigning World Champion Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the film begins many years earlier, when the two first meet during a Formula Three race. At the time, both Hunt and Lauda were up-and-coming drivers looking to seize their chance in the big leagues. When Lauda takes out a loan and buys his way onto a team, eventually joining Ferrari after showcasing his talent behind the wheel and in the garage, Hunt is desperate to follow suit. But despite the backing of a wealthy benefactor, Hunt’s F1 car simply doesn’t compare to Lauda’s first-rate Ferrari, and the cold and calculated Austrian ends up winning the ’75 championship. One year later, Hunt is offered the chance to drive for McLaren, and with the odds now evened, the two men pick up where they left off on the race track, resulting in one of the most unforgettable seasons in F1 racing history.
Though “Rush” has all the markings of a typical sports drama, it’s essentially a two-person character study centered on the intriguing relationship between Lauda and Hunt, whose rivalry was born just as much from their competitive nature as the mutual respect they had for one another. The film does a good job of giving both men equal screen time, but the best moments are the scenes they share together. Brühl and Hemsworth play off each other wonderfully, although the former clearly has the juicier role due to his character’s more dramatic story arc. Hunt is incredibly likeable the moment he’s introduced (and Hemsworth just oozes charisma), but Brühl really has to work to get the unemotional and misunderstood Lauda on the audience’s side, and it’s the kind of performance that’ll likely be remembered come awards time.
The supporting cast isn’t given a lot to do, but of the two characters’ respective love interests, Alexandra Maria Lara fares much better as Lauda’s wife than Olivia Wilde’s fleeting appearance as model/Hunt paramour Suzy Miller. Nevertheless, it’s no secret that Lauda and Hunt are the main draw, and there’s enough material between the two of them that they could probably command their own biopics without having to share the spotlight. What’s most impressive about “Rush,” though, is the way that Howard and Morgan have crafted the story so that both men “win” in the end. It’s a tricky proposition, but they manage to pull it off, and that goes a long way in making up for the lack of exciting race sequences. Racing fans will no doubt be disappointed, but “Rush” is still a well-acted drama that’s biggest problem is perhaps being a tad too conventional.