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The Great Sports Film

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(above) VULNERABLE HEROES: Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl star as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the 1976 race-car drivers who battled for world champion. Courtesy photo

I love movies like “Rush,” because they prove to me that cinematic roads still exist to travel and tell stories. I knew nothing about race-car drivers James Hunt or Niki Lauda, or the legendary Formula One driving rivalry that fueled them throughout the 1976 season. It was as foreign to me as the Jamaican bobsledders of “Cool Runnings,” or the very brief football career of Rudy Ruteger. By the end of the film, I learned about two remarkable individuals and the passion they had for their sport.

“Rush” is a great movie with some familiar themes. Executed beautifully by director Ron Howard, who made a career out of specializing in well-made mainstream films, the idea of competitors driven to extreme lengths to win at any cost certainly isn’t anything new. Literally, hundreds of movies come fueled by man’s compulsion to win, and so many of them paint with broad strokes, clichés and platitudes. They’re also replete with dramatic music and motivational speeches designed to make viewers feel as if crossing the finish line first or achieving the highest score is humanity’s crowning achievement. It’s not, mind you. Splitting the atom is pretty damn impressive. As is curing polio, but the story of Jonas Salk doesn’t exactly get the engines revving, I suppose.

In 1976 James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) drove with a completely different mindset. Hunt believed in driving fast, partying all night long, and leaving a beautiful corpse. Lauda remained an obsessive compulsive who had difficultly connecting with anything that didn’t have a clutch. Their will to win combined with “The Odd Couple” sensibility made for some friction, and the battle between them for the win of world champion was all the talk in the racing world. Neither man was all that complex—something I appreciate the filmmakers admitting.

So many sports movies are ruined by an idea that those who compete are somehow heroic simply because they eschew conventional wisdom and put themselves in harm’s way. “Rush” takes great pains to not portray these men as gods, and merely as flawed control freaks—in Hunt’s case, a charismatic control freak. Lauda obsessed so much over being the best, it almost cost him his life.

The movie is so damn entertaining because it allows these drivers to be angry, frustrating, and disenfranchised people—not idols to be hoisted on the shoulders of their fans. Howard humanizes them and his obvious respect for them is evident. He shows us their scars and exposes their frailties.

Hunt stood as the kind of playboy for which racing was created. He cared as much about the part after the race as the race itself. Lauda struggled deeply with the idea that life existed beyond the cockpit of his racer. By the end of their journey in the movie, both men learn a little bit from one another. There’s no life-changing moment where they become best friends and buy a timeshare in Cyprus. Instead, they both earn a level of respect from the other. It’s not exactly the most triumphant of endings, but it feels so right for this story.

God bless Howard for his restraint. “Rush” could have been something truly awful, but he made a movie about drivers, not driving. This is Hunt and Lauda’s story. The performances are excellent. The racing is beautifully filmed but never drags on, and the races are important to the piece. Still, Howard avoids the stereotypical sports movie clichés which keep the action tight around the corners. He doesn’t take too much time away from those carrying the emotional weight of the film.

Anyone making a sports movie should be forced to watch “Rush,” if only to help them see how great the genre can be when someone shows a modicum of restraint and doesn’t go for easy payoffs. “Rush” is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It captures the era, the sport and the men behind the wheel perfectly.

Like I said, I knew nothing about this subject at the start of the film, and now I feel like I was there. That is all I want from a movie nowadays: Tell me a story I don’t know and make it damn entertaining.


Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde
Directed by Ron Howard
Rated R

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