Rush reunites Ron Howard and Peter Morgan, who worked as director and screenwriter for Frost/Nixon. Morgan’s script doesn’t delve deeply into the “whys” of real-life Formula One race car drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. As portrayed in the film, they are each motivated by the need to defeat the other, men who speed along twisting tracks at 170-plus miles per hour, narrowly missing injury or worse with each turn.
Howard skims over the personal lives of Hunt and Lauda so he can focus on the rivalry and the difference in personalities. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is driven by the spoils of victory — among them the gorgeous women who offer themselves for pleasure. The controlled, rational Lauda (Daniel Brühl) has a single-minded need to to be the best, and racing is a means to an end. Hunt is the handsomer of the two, the stud cocksman women are only too willing to bed. On this point, Howard includes a bit of so-obvious-it's-funny symbolism, showing a race car’s pistons firing after a Hunt sex scene. He’s a good-looking nice guy who never quite fully matured. Or perhaps he just knows how to let loose and have a good time. Lauda can be a jerk — a man wanting for social tact and whose analytical demeanor make him seem devoid of passion. He's the adult to Hunt's big kid. He's also a bit more interesting, though both make for pretty fascinating characters. Rush has fun with the distance between Lauda and Hunt by having them verbally go at each other in scenes that are as lively and involving as any on the race course.
Howard and Morgan are all about painting in broad strokes, and they hit the basic points of each man's personal relationships in the service of highlighting the differences between the racers. Olivia Wilde (Tron Legacy) puts on a convincing English accent in a small role as Hunt’s fashion model wife, and who must suffer his many foibles. Alexandra Maria Lara (Miracle at St. Anna) plays Lauda's warm, supportive spouse.
As for the races, Howard pushes his cameras right up against the cars and at or near ground level to capture their power as they idle or roar over the track. He also conveys the majesty of racing — particularly during the pre-race buildup to the Japanese Grand Prix that is the movie's the final event. While it's formulaic and safe in its artistic reach, Rush defies movie conventions that offer a clear protagonist and serve up someone to root for. Hunt comes across as more relatable. He's the guy you think you'd rather hang out with. Lauda is blunt and socially awkward, but a brilliant mind when it comes to building and racing cars. Maybe the guy you can learn from. But by the movie's end, we realize Rush isn't about who wins or loses.
Beyond the thrills of its racing scenes, Rush is interesting for showing the way Lauda and Hunt approached the sport of racing — one man who says he can take or leave the sport, and another indulging in its spoils. Hunt talks about the nobility of risking one's life for victory. Lauda calculates the percentages. The movie is satisfying because Howard makes us believe in the myth that surrounds these men, while also showing them as flawed human beings.