On some level most every film has heroes and villains. Sometimes they can be one and the same and they aren’t always easily defined, but in the end there are moments and characters you cheer for and others you root against. In a sports drama your hero and villain are most often more easily defined. Sure, the hero may have a few flaws and shortcomings he/she needs to overcome and the villain may have a less understood side, but they are often boiled down to one side is good and we want to see that side succeed in the face of adversity.
With Rush, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan don’t take sides and the film’s two lead characters are never so easily defined, which is to say they’re presented as real human beings as opposed to typical movie stereotypes. For the sake of storytelling they are simplified at times and boiled down to either a womanizing drunk or a narrowly focused jerk, but in the end the 1970s rivalry between Formula-1 race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda is a story of two opposing forces driven by a passion for success. The only difference is the way each of them defines the path to achieve success, making for one hell of a story of two men more similar than they could possibly know.
Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers) plays Englishman James Hunt. He’s a cocky and talented playboy with a lead foot and an overly aggressive approach to racing. Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) is the Austrian Niki Lauda, a perfectionist who views race car driving as a business and one he’s not only good at, but understands better than anything else.
Lauda understands the risks, which say there is a 20% chance he’ll die in every race he begins and while he’s willing to accept that risk, he’s also not willing to accept anything more. His passion, like Hunt’s, is to be the very best, but where Hunt’s passion allows him to take larger risks on the race track, Lauda’s passion drives him to take larger risks in his personal life.
Hunt is the life of the party, Lauda is the frowning face that would rather work out the aerodynamics on his car than suck down beers and bed multiple women. He sees happiness as a weakness, something that forces the mind to care for something more than the task at hand and his understanding of the sport is boiled down to the angles as is clearly evident in one scene early on when a driver crashes and is shuttled off to the hospital. We overhear Hunt say the race should be canceled while Lauda disagrees. It was the driver’s fault, look at the skid marks, he went into the turn all wrong. It’s about the numbers and accuracy for Lauda and his lack of social skills paint him as the enemy on and off the track, but for him it’s simply telling it like it is.
Hemsworth and Bruhl are both fantastic in their opposing roles, opening the door to the lives of these two men, allowing you to understand where they’re coming from even when they make the wrong choices. Right and wrong in life is sometimes separated by the most narrow of margins and whether it’s ego, passion or something else that causes someone to do one thing over another will sometimes never be known, but it’s the journey and what’s learned along the way that’s important.
Early on you can see the direction the story is going to take, but the true story behind Rush forces Howard and Morgan to make decisions they otherwise might have avoided. Howard is typically a rather safe director, his stories often go in the most obvious of directions, but the relationship between Lauda and Hunt doesn’t follow the typical Hollywood track, which adds a layer to the story and a high level of emotional effectiveness that hits early and carries on through the end.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the combination of Hans Zimmer‘s score and the cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). The film is dominated by dark contrasting imagery as grey clouds storm over the opening titles and rain dominates two of the highest profile races in the film, all accompanied by Zimmer’s powerful score, led appropriately by a cello.
Compare this to the brightly-colored imagery in Tony Scott‘s 1990s NASCAR feature Days of Thunder, which was also scored by Zimmer, and finds many similarities in theme and story only it was far more of an entertainment-only piece whereas Rush mines deeper dramatic elements. The two films serve as fantastic “compare and contrast” companion pieces that draw a line between entertainment-only features and something on the other side. I love both films, but for dramatically different reasons.
I’m not sure if its because I played sports all my life and understand and may see sport rivalries a little different than others or what may be the case, but as Rush wore on I grew increasingly invested in the relationship between Hunt and Lauda to where I almost didn’t see them as two characters, I saw them as a collective whole. Even though the two rarely share kind words between one another (or even screen time for that matter) over the film’s duration, the way Howard has laid out the narrative it always feels as if they are in the same head space and it’s complicated territory to say the least.
Neither of these two characters are hero or villain, even though your natural approach to such a story is to define them as such. As the film carries on you begin to see them merely as people, struggling against their natural instincts as they compete for glory from two different avenues. As soon as you find yourself siding with one over the other you’re likely to change allegiance until you too see them as one and the same, both are human beings fighting for success however they define it.