The film begins almost like a Bond film, Thunderball to be precise: race car driver James Hunt ( Chris Hemsworth) comes into the hospital after being thrashed by an aggrieved cuckold and, before the blood has been cleared from his face, he’s got his clothes off and he’s got the nurse begging him to do to her what landed him in the hospital in the first place. It’s a playful, cheeky scene where Hunt/Hemsworth, or more precisely that extraordinary body of his, is positioned by the camera as the nurse’s object of desire whilst the narrative itself positions Hunt/Hemsworth as subject and locus of audience identification, however aspirational.
Most of the film is set in the 1976 Formula One season and focuses on the competition between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to win the Formula 1 World Championship. Hunt is handsome, charismatic, impulsive; catnip to women but a real man’s man. Hunt loves the romance of the race, of putting his life on the line purely for the glory and because the adrenaline cranks up his sex life and makes him feel alive.. Lauda is plain (he’s called ‘rat-face’ in the movie), a loner, careful, methodical. He’s in it because racing is what he sees himself being most successful at; he plays the odds but systematically; he’s warned not to follow Hunt in the sack as he’s told no one can compete but such warnings are wasted as Lauda is really more interested in a home life. The film also shows us that they have more in common than they think; not only their background or talent or the type of women they are attracted to, but the competitiveness and the way each spurs the other on.
In the film’s terms what’s at stake in the contest is symbolized by who will win it. Will it be business or will it be romance? Is it ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ or nuts, bolts and numbers? It’s a neck-and-neck race that does credit to each whilst underlining the necessary interconnection of both. Even the two very good central performances have a ying/yang dimension: Hemsworth’s star is the one that shines brightest but it is Brühl’s performance that earns our admiration and will undoubtedly get the honours.
The film has a wonderful, distinctive look: slightly grainy, over-saturated with some carefully composed images (some of people sitting on signs) and shots that are thrilling to see almost on their own (e.g. some shots filmed through the inside of a helmet with the visor being drilled on the outside and the actors eye occupying most of one side of the frame). I initially suspected that it was done that way so as to be able to mix actual footage from the original races into the narrative and, whilst I can’t vouch for that, the effect is to make us think that it could have been. The film evokes the rush, the speed, the fumes and the danger of that time where technological developments in the cars had dangerously begun to overtake the safety mechanisms of the track at the cost, sometimes mortal, of twenty percent of the drivers each year.
Rush is very glamorous. The clothes look wonderful both on the men and particularly on those sleek, long legged women that could have come out of a Roxy Music album from the period (the soundtrack features Jimmy Cliff, Bowie and many other treats). The clothes look different than what I remember people wearing but exactly as the magazines and movies of the period made us wish we could look like, which I suppose is always the gap between street clothes and high-end fashion or, perhaps more accurately, the gap between how we do in fact end up looking and the promise of how we could, in the best of all worlds and with the very best of budgets, possibly look; Alexandra Maria Lara and especially Olivia Cole fulfil anyone’s dreams and look sublime.
The film works both as a serious drama and also as a sexy action film. The race is a thrilling photo finish in which what’s at stake is not only the win but also a romantic ideal and a set of values. It is slightly marred by an overly sentimental ending. It wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film without at least a small dose of saccharine; but the rest of the film wouldn’t be as good without Ron Howard’s tremendous skill and guiding intelligence either. It’s the kind of movie that used to be made by the big studios, though they would have considered themselves lucky to produce one of this quality more than once a year. Now, according to the September 13th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a film that even Ron Howard had to make independently because the big studios wouldn’t touch a mid-budget spectacular chase movie that’s fundamentally character-driven. It’s their loss and, at least in this instance, our gain. Rush is a film to see and experience, and maybe even more than once.
It’s been mooted in the internet that American distributors don’t have high expectations for Rush because it’s about Formula 1 racing rather than NASCAR and because it’s about the rivalry between an Englishman and a German (the implicit assumption being that Americans have no interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern them); another view, mine, is that if they can’t drum up business for a sexy, glamorous movie featuring a hot young star (Chris Hemsworth) coming off a roll of hits (Thor, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, Cabin in the Woods); a movie that is choc-a-bloc with car chases as exciting as anything in Fast and Furious films, they should all be fired.