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In the 1970s the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda was apparently very famous. I don't know this from any research or knowledge whatsoever of Formula One as a sport, but from Ron Howard's Rush, which is one of those seemingly miraculous sports movies with the power to engage you in something you never in a million years dreamed you'd care about. I remain terrified of race cars and generally bored by the sport, but the way Rush presents the clash between these two personalities, and the fears and passions that brought them to the racetrack, makes Formula One and everything around it seem riveting.
Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) are a classic pair of opposites who can't help but loathe each other when they first meet on the low-budget Formula Three racing circuit in the early 70s. Englishman Hunt is classically handsome and totally charismatic, chasing after women and popping champagne before a race, gliding through life with that rich-boy assumption that everything will fall into place. Austrian Lauda is also a rich boy but without family money backing him, which only seems to fuel his coiled, intense drive (sorry, the pun is unavoidable) to become a Formula One champion. The two taunt each other from the winners' podium regardless of who wins, trade barbs at press conferences and push each other to mutual success better than actual teammates could.
Even though it's Hemsworth's face dominating the poster and he's the more fun character to be around, Hunt never totally emerges as a full fleshed human. His challenges, such as they are, include scaring away sponsors with his partying ways and marrying a model (Olivia Wilde) who eventually runs off with Richard Burton. All credit to Hemsworth, who always works overtime to be interesting on top of those good looks, but Hunt is only truly captivating when grappling with Lauda, who is obviously the film's real star. Adopting an Austrian accent and some horrible hairdos to transform his own boyish good looks, Bruhl commits to the prickly Lauda and allows Peter Morgan's script to do the work of making him endearing. On the cusp of marrying his girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara), Lauda warns her that he won't remember anniversaries and won't be good at the hand-holding stuff. Confronting Hunt on the racetrack, he invites him to "call me a rat because I look like one." Lauda is as intense and frigid as any classic European sports movie villain, but Howard and Morgan want us to love him for it, and Bruhl makes it possible.
It helps, of course, that we eventually reach Lauda's famous 1976 accident, when he spent a full minute inside his flaming crashed car, and the remarkable recovery that took all of that Austrian ferocity to accomplish. Howard throws out every possible trick in filming the race scenes, from roadside cameras to slo-mo "driver vision," but it's Bruhl's performance and Lauda's force of will that makes his return to the track so spectacular to watch. Seeing Howard shake up his style after dishing out musty period gloss like Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man is refreshing, and he and Slumdog Millionaire Anthony Dod Mantle manage to jazz up the racing scenes without making the film feel like a Red Bull commercial. But Rush's greatest strength is the rivalry that drew Howard to tell this story to begin with, and the gifted actors who bring it to life. Bruhl may not be a big enough star to share space with Hemsworth on the poster, but if Rush captivates as many audiences as it ought to, that won't be true for long.