What may be the nicest surprise of the year is "Rush", Ron Howard's vivid recreation of the rivalry between two Formula One race car drivers in the 1970s. It is, at once, a sports film -- the best since "Moneyball" -- and the oddest of love stories between two men of differing temperaments. James Hunt (the enormously charming Chris Hemsworth) is a British playboy who lives as fast as he drives; Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl in a breakout role), is his polar opposite -- an Austrian with a rigorous, no-nonsense approach to life and racing.
At the onset (seen in an extended flashback), scriptwriter Peter Morgan smoothly delineates the characters and how they became competitors. Both men come from comfortable backgrounds, but for Lauda, who comes from a wealthy Austrian banking family, the thought of him becoming a race car driver is an anathema to his father, which leads Lauda to proceed on his own. Taking a risk, he buys his way into a team, and it pays off: Ferrari invites him to join their team and he squares off with Hunt for a competition that takes them through thrilling races and, ultimately, tragedy when Lauda is seriously burned in an auto crash on a wet race track as he competes with Hunt for the world championship in 1976.
His recovery and re-entry in the competition makes up the film’s tail end and gives the film an unexpected emotional heft. Much of this comes from the remarkable collaboration between Howard, who captures the adrenaline rush (hence the title) of the sport with thrilling visuals (abetted by the superb digital cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle) and Morgan, whose intelligent and smartly paced script plays to the subtexts of the psychological motivations of these men. Both are driven, but where Hunt is compelled by the fun of it (and all the trimmings, which include sex, drugs and celebrity), Lauda is driven by what appears to be a reaction to Hunt’s freewheeling lifestyle. He’s a prig, but one that gets under Hunt’s skin, as well as the viewer’s. He may lack Hunt’s likability, but has an integrity that difficult to ignore.
Howard and Morgan previously collaborated on another 1970s rivalry -- between the late David Frost and Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Morgan also chronicled the high drama that hit the House of Windsor after Princess Diana’s death in "The Queen." With "Rush" he balances the differing world views of his protagonists into a thrilling synthesis.
The racing sequences are superbly rendered, but what makes "Rush" so remarkable is how succinctly Howard and Morgan capture the motivation and drive of these competitors.
Much of this comes with casting: The giftedly handsome Hemsworth is smooth without being glib -- he’s as transparent as Brühl is opaque. This makes him warmer and, immediately, the more charismatic, but, ultimately, he becomes the less interesting of the two. Brühl, an Austrian actor little known in this country, is a revelation: Cool, dense and difficult, he shapes his performance with a brooding rage that sits beneath the surface, uncomfortably brimming to the surface in volatile ways.
It’s the kind of performance that will garner much attention at the end of the year, as should this film, which does what a great sports movie should do: Transcend its seemingly glossy surface into being a richer experience about the nature of competition. That it does so without losing its popular appeal makes this a "Fast and Furious" with brains.