When movies "based on a true story" go wrong, you get Pearl Harbor. When they go very, very right, you get Ron Howard's Rush, a fascinating story of honor in competition that quickly draws the viewer into its era and putting them firmly behind the wheel and behind the eyes of its characters, who gain life through able development and the charisma of their actors. Chris Hemsworth - proving his acting skills extend far beyond swinging large heavy weaponry and looking damn good doing it - and Daniel Brühl envelop themselves in their respective lead roles, opposites and yet mirrors of one another.
Hemsworth finely conveys the "look good, feel good" philosophy of James Hunt, the reckless womanizer and life of the party whose own existence turns out quite hollow when his passion project is stripped away from him mid-film, his bravado before the cameras effectively undercut by fits of pre-race vomiting and the constant nervous fidgeting of his hands, his cigarette lighter snapping open and closed like a set of chattering teeth. Brühl's Nicki Lauda is cool, precise, and calculating to the point of alienating everyone around him, including his sponsors and teammates. He is reserved and mannered but also startlingly blunt, leading to some humorously awkward segments of Lauda's attempts to socialize, including his diagnosis of a car's working condition by the vibrations felt in his posterior. Equal narrative focus is granted both Hunt and Lauda, to the point that each are awarded introductory voiceovers at the start of the film, and their respective journeys and the lessons learned - or not learned - are what keep the movie appealing between their racetrack encounters and verbal snipes.
While the film is lovingly captured in crystal clarity, the cinematography also bears a somewhat grainy, fuzzy quality that complements the 70s hair and clothing, lending credibility to the setting particularly when modern-day shots are intercut with stock footage from the real events. The headlining talents are the racing sequences, which expertly convey speed, intensity, and even emotion, without extraneous quick-cutting to disorient the audience (and better yet a minimum of CGI) while the roar and hum of engines are sure to give theater speakers a serious workout, and perhaps secure a few sound design nominations come awards season.
But truly the star of the show is Lauda in the film's third act, following the horrific crash - shown both in stock footage and a dazzling, highly-detailed recreation - that nearly ended his life and career. The makeup effects rendering Lauda's injuries are nasty to look upon, and images of the bandages being removed from his fresh wounds are made extremely difficult to watch. But as the adage goes about car wrecks, one is hard-pressed to turn their gaze away.
This is the film at its most uncomfortable, but also its most engaging; while we root for Lauda's recovery and return to the track, we also see the best evidence of the effect Hunt and Lauda have upon one another, and how the spirit of competition better them both. Not that the effects are equal; Hunt enters the story a self-centered, irresponsible jackass and exits much the same way, but at the very least gains some nobility in the process, most notably when we takes a reporter to task over an insensitive question following a press conference. The climactic World Championship race in Fuji, for those unfamiliar with the real-life events, does not end as one might expect, but the result is still triumphant, and the victory feels solidly earned.
The film slightly, and only slightly, hiccups in a few areas. While it moves at a steady pumping pace even when the cars aren't rolling, it hampers its ability to properly relay the passage of time. Hunt and Lauda's first Formula 3 encounter and the fiery crash of 1976 is spaced by six years, but dates and locations are thrown at the viewer in such rapid succession that it's easy to get lost, particularly as a mid-film montage chronicles the two's wins and losses.
Additionally, so sharp is the focus on Hunt and Lauda that it comes at the cost of supporting players who might have offered some outside perspective on the whole ordeal, such as Lauda's racing teammate Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino of Howard's Angels & Demons), but namely Suzy Miller, Hunt's model wife played by Olivia Wilde, who struts into the film as if out of a pleasant dream in a brief but penetrating supporting role.
While Miller's whirlwind marriage to Hunt immediately following their first meeting - seriously, they meet once and in the very next scene are hitched - works from a comedic standpoint, the divorce is handled in the same "oh, so that just happened" fashion, where a touch more setup toward their inevitable rift would have been welcome even if such steps had to be fictionalized; Hunt's verbal abuse during his depressed period might have been reason enough, but their final face-to-face sees Miller rattle off a laundry list of transgressions to which the audience is never witness (meanwhile one wonders if a cameo by a Richard Burton lookalike was cut from the film).
Awarded greater attention is the equally impressive Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife Marlene, and not unrightly so, as she has greater impact on the story. She is the first to bring out the more Hunt-ish, daredevil side of Lauda, and becomes the face of supportive worry through the final stretch of the film once Lauda suffers the consequences of "chasing Hunt like an as asshole", as he puts it.
As a historical drama, Rush just plain works because it benefits even those without knowledge of Hunt and Lauda's rivalry or of Formula 1 racing at all, dropping tidbits on the rules and practices of the sport without diving into lengthy expositions. It instead lets the races speak for themselves, and when the engines stop, it's the characters, not simply their dialogue, driving the action and its lesson, that not all rivalries need remain bitter.