It's the final event of the season, and the World Championship title can only belong to one man. The problem is, there are two gunning for it, and there’s only a point between them when the flag drops to start the race.
To be sure, this sounds like the visible etchings on a napkin by some half-asleep Hollywood execs, charged with coming up with a teen-jock sporting sequel by the end of dinner, but two things have saved us from ‘Rush’ being the result of such a creative exercise. The first is that it’s Ron Howard and Peter Morgan sitting at the table, the second is that this story happens to be true.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl star in Ron Howard's 'Rush'
The same team that brought the real-life drama of ‘Frost/Nixon’ to the big screen has turned its attentions to Formula One, and the events of 1976, a year of such singularity that the fact that both British James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda were each one gear-change away from the title was actually only one of the less dramatic events.
Morgan and Howard have rightly recognised the dramatic gift of the differences in the two men - daredevil versus tireless technician, hedonistic champagne-guzzler versus undiplomatic introvert, telegenic blond versus a man whose looks are compared with ‘a rat’. It's Biblical before these two even get on the track.
Australian Chris Hemsworth channels all of his Thor-esque charisma into Hunt's aristocratic arrogance admirably, as well as squeezing his slimmed-down frame into the constrictions of a Formula One chariot. His English accent is near-perfect, considering Hunt’s later commentary duties mean many a critical ear attached to a Grand Prix fan will be attuned to how the real man sounded. The endless parade of jiggling women and party bubbles could have made for a cartoon antagonist, but Hemsworth gives us enough flickers of complexity, self-doubt and competitiveness for it to make sense when he later tries to second-guess his opponent, and opts to stay on wet tyres, just “because Niki is”.
Despite Hemsworth’s appeal, however, the film really belongs to German actor Daniel Brühl, in an extraordinarily compelling outing as the disciplined but equally demonised Lauda. Without the Austrian being as witty, charming or as pretty as his rival, Bruhl instead imbues him with a Teutonic solidity and emerging charisma of his own, with emotional cracks all the more moving for their fleetingness. The expression is all in his eyes, which is useful when that's often all you get on screen in a film about often helmeted racing drivers.
The production is as colourful and vibrant as you'd expect any film about an elite sport in the mid-1970s to be. Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Special Relationship) has assembled a script from a glittering catalogue of real life characters, from Hunt's initial benefactor Lord Hesketh with his stately home and champagne glasses, to a backstage Richard Burton, the man Hunt's weary wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) ran away to for a quiet life. What does that tell you about Hunt?
Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has brought his own technical prowess to bear, with the rain beating down on the track in Japan for the ultimate race, and the palpable feelings of the claustrophobia, the speed, the… rush of driving a fast car, they’re all there.
But to some extent, with this kind of almost mythical narrative, the most important job for Morgan and Howard is to simply get out of the way, and let the cars, and the men in them, tell the story.
A wise man learns more from his enemies, than a fool from his friends, Lauda tells Hunt during one pivotal scene and sure enough, these two were defined by the other's presence in their life. It is a tribute to a tale well told, as well as sterling performances across the grid, that, even while they engage in a supremely self-indulgent and arrogant battle for one-upmanship, it remains possible to root for them both all the while and revel vicariously in each of their singular glory.
'Rush' is in UK cinemas from 13 September 2013. Watch the trailer below...