Though Formula 1 auto racing has nevermanaged to capture the sustained attention of American sports fans, it remains a global spectacle. With a European home base for fanatics, drivers and auto engineers, not to mention Grand Prix races literally all over the world—Europe, Asia, North America, South America, the Middle East—the Formula 1 Championship is more or less unanimously considered the pinnacle of motor racing. It has the stigma of appealing to an intellectual set (sort of like soccer or tennis) who love watching advanced machines and precision drivers navigate elaborate tracks; this, as opposed to NASCAR, which stereotypically appeals to Southern yokels who love watching explosions.
Regardless, the 1970s was a golden age for Formula 1, a moment when the sport impinged briefly on the cultural mainstream. Director Ron Howard explores that moment, and the epic rivalry that made Formula 1 the most cutthroat entertainment of 1976 in Rush, out this Friday.
Masterfully cast in the leading roles are Chris Hemsworth as the blond and brawny British playboy James Hunt, and Inglorious Basterds' Daniel Bruhl as the methodical German mastermind and student-of-the-game Niki Lauda. With opening dual voice-overs, the film establishes Hunt and Lauda in immediate opposition. About the only thing they have in common is an unnatural God-given talent behind the wheel. One of Howard's most striking successes in Rush is the extent to which, despite their differences, you genuinely like both men.
After some quick exposition and character building—and it takes about 30 seconds to understand these guys perfectly—Rush charts the triumphs and pitfalls of the 1976 Grand Prix series. It's a year after Lauda has won the championship and Hunt has publicly vowed to take the crown from his adversary. Inclement weather, volatile relationships and an increasingly bitter competition between them count among the year's dangers. Olivia Wilde and the gorgeous Alexandra Maria Lara play opposite Hemsworth and Bruhl, but regrettably don't have much screen time to be anything other than "additional factors" in two lives monopolized by racing.
Be forewarned: There's a great deal of racing in the film. But these are beautiful, intense sequences to watch. Unlike 2009's Invictus, for example, which built up incredibly high stakes for a single rugby game and then managed to make the game itself the least interesting part of the film—you weren't sure how the game was played or scored and the whole thing was more like a montage than a comprehensible contest—Rush is not complicated, sports-wise. The tracks and the attendant emotions may be, but it's not like viewers need to be told that the guy who finishes first wins. The drama is pre-programmed.
Nonetheless, because of our familiarity with Formula 1 racing (i.e, not much), the artful slow-motion sequences of tires slashing and splashing through rain and the symphony of bass-line engine revs and treble tire screeches, and the close-ups of eyes and sweat and bloody hands inside these single-seat coffins feel entirely new and unexplored. Howard is concerned with the dramatic visuals and psychological effects on the drivers—charging at breakneck speeds in defiance of physics and mortality—as much as, if not more than, the final score.
And it turns out the final score is only important in as much as it perpetuates a rivalry. It's clear that a compelling top-flight rivalry makes its sport and its top performers even better. Both Hunt and Bruhl eventually acknowledge the other's importance as they mature and cultivate an uneasy brotherhood. It's astute of Howard to show—and a pleasure for us to watch—how respect can grow in direct correlation with hate.