British screenwriter Peter Morgan seems to crank out one splendid screenplay per annum. “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Last King of Scotland” certainly showed his dexterity with political and historical material. But in Clint Eastwood’s under-appreciated “Hereafter” and “The Damned United” he also displayed a superb understanding for characters who do not rule nations.
His new film, “Rush,” is by no means among his best scripts, yet like “Frost/Nixon” it demonstrates how two rivals can unite in a symbiotic relationship that becomes a kind of perverse pleasure for a viewer to behold.
Like “The Damned United” it’s a sports story. But “Rush” is less interested in the nuances and tactics of the sport than the hearts and minds of those who live and die — sometimes literally —for that sport. In this case, it’s death-defying Formula 1 auto racing.
The director is Ron Howard, who has become his generation’s Arthur Hiller, a director who rose to the level of the screenplays entrusted to him. So when Howard gets one as fine as Morgan’s “Rush,” he realizes its excitement and its two vivid characters extremely well on the screen.
Morgan’s story zeros in on a fierce rivalry between two 1970s’ legendary Formula 1 drivers, the talented English playboy James Hunt (Australian Chris Hemsworth) and his methodical, by-the-book Austrian opponent, Niki Lauda (Germany’s Daniel Brühl).
Their Grand Prix face-offs are detailed without the extended racing footage that turns off non-racing fans. The focus, even out on the racetrack, is on character and not grinding engine parts or oh-my-God stunts.
They are thus united not only in their bitter rivalry as in a unity of opposites. Their uncompromising differences in temperament and tactics form a bond that ensures rising conflict and crises.
Initially the film may encourage you to prefer James’ style over Niki’s substance. James is enormously likable and free-spirited — indeed these very traits are as responsible for wariness by sponsors as the embrace of fans. James likes to drink and party with beautiful women and seemingly likes everyone he encounters — other than Niki Lauda.
Niki is actually just as much a rebel. He comes from a family of Viennese power brokers that disapproves of his choice in vocation. But his racing relies on a Teutonic belief in precision and discipline, in reducing the odds for catastrophe by taking chances only when there’s an incentive to do so.
He is not as popular as his rival; indeed he is sometimes known as “the rat,” due to prominent bucked teeth. As for women, he does take a wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), but worries that “happiness is the enemy,” that marital bliss may take his mind off a job on which he needs to concentrate his full mental energies.
James take a wife too — impulsively, according to the movie. But Suzy (British beauty Olivia Wilde) is gone almost as quickly, fed up with the boozing and philandering — although you see only a little of the former and none of the latter. Suzy simply says this happens and James doesn’t argue.
This points to a real weakness in Morgan’s otherwise riveting writing. The women — for that matter all other roles — get short-shifted. The Hunts’ breakup is summed up in a quick scene of angry dialogue. Marlene Lauda looks worried as her husband risks his life but that’s about it.
In 1976 Niki suffers a bad wreck and fire that lands him in ICU with horrifying burns to head and lungs. Yet he insists on returning to the circuit within a few weeks in order to prevent his rival from winning that year’s championship.
This underscores the film’s theme that each driver desperately needs his rival: Without an enemy to goad each to greater performances on the track, neither would be the championship racer both became.
So it’s Maris and Mantle and Connors and McEnroe with maybe a little Astaire and Rogers thrown in.
“Rush” isn’t a deep film but its surfaces are polished and thrilling. Morgan also pretty much ignores James’ real enemy in life, that of a severe addiction to alcohol and sex.
News reports have indicated Hunt may have had sex with as many as 5,000 women in his brief lifetime. How much liquor and drugs he consumed cannot be as easily enumerated. Indeed his pre-race ritual of vomiting, shown frequently in the film, was said to be a combination of nerves and often an overindulgence in booze.
Howard, who began his directing career with Roger Corman’s car-chase movie “Grand Theft Auto,” coaxes fabulous performances from his two actors in the only roles that count in “Rush.”
Hemsworth is highly charismatic and flamboyant as the devil-may-care racer who lives only for the moment. His long blond tresses and warm smile ingratiate him to viewers even as his character’s personal habits may put some off. But on the track he’s as serious as a heart attack.
Brühl, who is indeed outfitted with rodent-like teeth as Niki, makes no attempt to ingratiate himself either to teammates or the audience. He plays things straight with a pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude but fierce competitive spirit.
A union of opposites indeed. No wonder the two develop a grudging admiration for one another.
The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) never goes for those adrenaline-charged images that inspire other racing movies from “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans” to the “Fast & Furious” series. It’s more cooly observant and to-the-point. In other words, more Niki Lauda than James Hunt.
Opens: September 20, 2013 (limited); Sept. 27 (wide) (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Revolution, Working Title, Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Alistair Petrie
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Oliver, Peter Morgan, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Tobin Armbrust, Tim Bevan, Tyler Thompson, Todd Hallowell
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Mark Digby
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Dan Hanley, Mike Hill
R rating, 123 minutes