The Formula One racing cars of the 1970s were fast, oversized toys. In “Rush” we see driver James Hunt — played by Chris Hemsworth — squeeze his 6 foot 3 inch frame into a tiny cockpit, where he’s handed a small steering wheel. Hunt must affix the wheel to the steering column himself — so tightly bound is the Formula One race car design. There’s barely room to breathe, and sneezing isn’t an option.
Born to a middle class British family in 1976, Hunt was a competitor on the European Formula One circuit. He was a media darling, but the owner of Hunt’s next potential drive was concerned that he lacked consistency. Hunt explains, “You need me because I’ll put my life on the line to win.” He’s that guy who either leaves the casino flush, with a woman on each arm, or dead broke, nevertheless smiling and with a woman on each arm. He’s equal parts irrepressible and irresistible.
Director Ron Howard’s dramatic biopic, “Rush,” is the story of Hunt’s rivalry with Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Lauda’s talent was born of his self-proclaimed ability to, when seated in a car, “feel everything about it with my ass.”
Lauda demonstrates this extraordinary sense while a passenger in a car belonging to Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), a woman he just met. “Your fan belt is slipping and about to break. Your right front wheel is lower than your left,” he informs her in a matter-of-fact tone. She shoots him an icy glare and says, “I’ll have you know I’ve just had my car serviced and it’s in top shape.” Several minutes later, they’re stranded on the side of the road.
The son of a wealthy Austrian, Lauda’s father insisted his son go into the boring, but successful, family business. Declaring that he planned to become a race car driver instead, Lauda found himself cut off from the family fortune and forced to cash in his own holdings to buy a spot on a racing team. The move brought him to the attention of Ferrari, a major Formula One force that eventually recruited him.
Hunt worked to remain popular while Lauda was all business. Each man thought the other foolish and, soon enough, the media painted them as hard-bitten rivals.
Howard recreates the era using its filming techniques, and he achieves the grainy look of movies shot during the ‘70s. Race cars whiz by without the gleam of high definition, and the track, seen from a driver’s perspective, bounces and vibrates on film without the benefit of a Steadicam. Race tracks wind over a willy-nilly course as if unfurled at random. Four decades later the ‘70s seem like the distant past, but the war between the popular jock and the hard-working nerd rages on.