Somehow, the 1970s never entered British popular culture as a particularly cool period in time. Instead, the decade is seen primarily as an era of economic downturn and cheesy entertainment which should be remembered with ironic detachment – if it is remembered at all. Rush, from writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard, is a film that seeks to buck this trend by telling the story of two colourful figures from the world of seventies sport: a pair of Formula 1 racing drivers who developed a strong rivalry.
Chris Hemsworth stars as English racer James Hunt, while Daniel Brühl plays the Austrian Niki Lauder. Hunt is portrayed as easy-going and jokey, in contrast to Lauder’s more serious-minded and analytical mindset, but the differences between the two figures are outweighed by their similarities. The fictionalised versions of the two men both come across as being young boys at heart, each determined to win the gold and prove their superiority even if they risk injury or death on the tracks.
The first two acts of the film are structured from a long series of bite-sized portions. Scene after scene, Hunt and Lauda are presented as macho, larger-than-life figures who boast and jibe while the people in their lives – managers, mechanics, successions of largely interchangeable girlfriends – stand back in awe as the two men take their rivalry to even further lengths.
For a large portion of the film, the machismo is unrelenting. Even when Hunt’s wife-to-be Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) arrives into the narrative and shows a degree of disdain for the racing world, she does so with a sort of alternate machismo, dismissing Hunt’s beloved car as merely a boy’s toy.
Up to this point, it would be easy to dismiss Rush as over-simplistic, with the characters developed through little more than a string of alternating back-patting and finger-flipping. But the film reveals itself to be a more considered work than it may at first appear: even as it celebrates their boyish demeanour, the film realises that these characters cannot be boys forever.
This becomes clear when the rug is eventually pulled out from beneath the two protagonists. First, it is the moneymen who spoil the kids’ fun: Hunt suffers a temporary setback when he fails to find a sponsor and has to pull out of racing. He spends a period reduced to swigging spirits while playing with a Scalextric, his essentially childlike persona clashing with the seedier side of the adult world.
Finally, it is their own determination to best each other that proves their undoing. When Lauda suffers a serious crash after driving in dangerous conditions against his better judgment, Hunt’s swaggering persona is left looking as out of place as a clown at a funeral: the time has come for the schoolboys to grow up.
Indeed, the structure of Rush is very similar to a race. The two leads are constantly heading forward, with one or the other occasionally pushing out in front, but at the same time they are both going around in circles. The spectators can only look on in excitement for so long: somewhere down the line, the race will have to end.
Rush is a film which knows when to plough on straight ahead, and when to stop and pause for breath. Behind its seemingly one-note celebration of the thrills and spills of the racetrack lies a thoughtful meditation upon the machismo of sporting culture.