Rush succeeds not just because of what it is but because of what it isn't. A sports drama based on a true story, the film mostly stays away from the clichés that make fact-based sports movies so familiar. No rooting interests, no inspirational speeches, no feel-good message about the triumph of the human spirit: Rush plays against conventions and is all the more rewarding for it.
This is even more impressive considering who made it. For a long time now, director Ron Howard has been one of Hollywood's most reliable (albeit hardly scintillating) filmmakers. He's a fine craftsman, but not a nervy one. Whether making polished prestige films like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind or dependably middle-of-the-road cash cows such as The Da Vinci Code, he rarely challenges an audience.
But his Rush does a fine job of delivering a straightforward racing movie while subverting our expectations. The movie takes us back to the battle between two of the 1970s' most competitive Formula One racers, Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). On paper, it's a cut-and-dried dramatic rivalry: Hunt was the brash, hunky, lady-slaying life of the party, while Lauda was a moody, disciplined, caustic introvert with few friends on the circuit. The only thing they had in common was that they wanted to beat the other—not just for the glory but, really, to prove that their approach to racing and life was superior.
The film has a script from Peter Morgan, who also wrote the adaptation for The Damned United, and like that film Rush has a refreshingly measured attitude toward sports. Most sports dramas want to elevate human competition until it becomes a holy metaphor for all sorts of things: equality, courage, freedom, the pursuit of excellence. The Damned United was a portrait of Leeds United coach Brian Clough's ignominious failure, and while Rush is far more rousing, it too questions whether athletes actually better themselves through their quest for championships.
That ambivalence is felt most strongly in Howard's attitude toward his two characters. You'd be hard-pressed to say which man he favors, letting them both be flawed and empathetic in their own way. You can relate to Lauda's envy of Hunt's looks and popularity, but the truth is, Lauda is a cold, petty jerk, his competitive fire stoked by his own misanthropy. By comparison, Hunt is a sweet and sunny guy, but his womanizing and lackadaisical attitude about training make him seem spoiled and unappreciative of his god-given talent. Each man is both hero and villain, and while they shift roles as the movie progresses, neither exactly "grows" or "evolves." As the women in their lives come to accept, they're basically hopeless—only a life-threatening wreck will cause one of them to change his ways, and even then only somewhat.
The performances mirror Rush's split rooting interest. Brühl has been great in everything from Good Bye Lenin to Inglourious Basterds, but as Lauda he's allowed a real showcase. The actor honors the character's off-putting personality, but shows just enough humanity so that we never miss the chip weighing down on his shoulder. As for Hemsworth, he's displayed an ability to mock his own Mount Olympus features with self-deprecating humor as Thor, and a similar light touch is brought to bear in his portrayal of Hunt. Without underlining it, Hemsworth suggests that Hunt's easygoing personality and attractiveness were assets he hid behind so as not to reveal his fear of failing at racing, the only thing he really enjoyed. The two men have a rapport that's combative but almost flirtatious as well: You get the sense that these two racers, the best in their field, saw in each other a person who understood them better than anyone else—and who had qualities that the other secretly desired.
Working with frequent Danny Boyle cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard gives Rush a vibrant period look, breezily moving from race to race and from incident to incident in the two men's personal lives. Howard's high-sheen showmanship is never in question, and the film always looks and sounds great. (The races are exciting, and the character interplay is funny and sharp when we move away from the track.) It's inevitable that a few biopic conventions are duly observed, including a certain rote recitation of some events and a predictable build to the big finale. (Plus, during a scene showing how famous one of the racers has become, David Bowie's "Fame" plays on the soundtrack—you know, just so we don't have any doubt.) But if you can avoid learning anything about the actual events, do it, because Rush has one of the more satisfying endings to a sports movie in a while, one that's committed to the filmmakers' uncertain feelings about winners and losers. These men spent years trying to best each other, but as Rush figures it, without each other, they'd been nothing.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.