Rush, Ron Howard's racing film about the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is an intense tale about the drive to succeed. Contrary to what the films marketing may lead you to think, this is a film with two lead actors. Sure, Chris Hemsworth's portrayal of James Hunt is our primary point of view, but the story challenges that. We spend just as much time with Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda.
Warning: This is a post-viewing reaction to Rush. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading now. Otherwise, let’s go.
I found Rush to be thrilling, and was swept up in the story. I was too young to have lived through the true story, and am particularly interested in racing, yet I found myself engrossed in the story. While I think the film led me to anticipate Niki Lauda's crash and Hunt's eventual win, I enjoyed watching the story unfold. I think there were some interesting visuals employed to increase interest in the racing scenes and montages. It may be common in films based on true stories, but I felt like some of the supporting characters were short changed (or at least used unevenly). Of course, that’s how life works, so I have trouble holding that against the filmmakers.
The racing is exciting, and the story is interesting, but what really fascinates me about Rush is its exploration of the rivalry and how the two racers dedicate themselves to their goal of being a champion. Hunt and Lauda are driven by different purposes. On the surface, it would seem like these two are similar because they have the same goal; however, their priorities and outlooks on life drive them to pursue their goal in very different ways.
Is happiness really the enemy?
One of my favorite moments in Rush is one of the quietest. We saw that once the excitement and joy from Lauda's honeymoon has passed, he was terrified by the realization that now he had something to lose. As Niki stares out into the night, he shares his concern that happiness could make him weak. By this point in the film, we've come to see that rival James Hunt was at his best when he embraced the risk. He threw himself into each race, embracing his dance with death. Niki Lauda was not that man. Niki balanced everything by risk. He was clear that he saw racing as a talent, and was always conscious of the risks and rewards of each situation. Niki Lauda didn’t care if you saw him as an asshole. He just wanted to be the best. His marriage unbalanced him. Suddenly, the calculations of acceptable risk changed. He feared that by having something to lose, he would become weak and could no longer succeed.
Rush challenges you to think about this, because the winners and losers aren't so clear. Hunt ignores his marriage, and becomes world champion. Lauda takes care of himself and values his marriage, yet fails to reclaim the championship. However, Niki appears to realize in the final race that the potential reward of winning the race was not worth the risk of losing his life. Hunt wins the championship, becoming an international success far beyond what Niki Lauda had been. One could argue that love had made Niki soft. If he had been willing to push himself and risk his life the way Hunt did, he could have repeated as champion. In the end, it depends what you believe of each other's successes. James Hunt did win, but the spoils of victory seem empty in comparison of Niki Lauda's dedication to his craft and his love for his wife.
Was the challenge of their rivalry the cause of their success?
James Hunt seemed destined to race in Formula 1. He was naturally gifted, seemed to live for the sport, and was willing to risk more than anyone. Niki Lauda provided the inspiration to find alternate means to get into Formula 1, and was an enemy at the top for Hunt to challenge. Over time, we see Hunt respect Lauda, but the vendetta between them drove Hunt to succeed, to push himself as far as he could. It is hard to determine if Hunt could have risen to the top without being so fixated on beating Lauda.
Niki appeared to be more internally driven. He bought into Formula 1 to prove his father wrong. He was also a great driver, but was also very talented in the technical aspects of racing (allowing him to push his mechanics to rebuild cars and claim that he was gifted with a "great ass" as a pickup line). But as we saw through the story, Niki was focused on the risks and reward of each situation. He pushed himself to a championship without James Hunt, and seemed to be above their rivalry. However, when Lauda's attempt to cancel the German Grand Prix was squashed, we see him abandon his principle of minimizing risk, and lose greatly. Lauda let Hunt push him to a place he didn't want to go, and paid the price. Lauda then inspiringly pushed himself back from the brink of death to the racetrack in order to defend his title, only to lose to Hunt. The rivalry seemed to be a neutral force for Lauda, who already had the discipline to succeed. That said, the accident may have been the catalyst that helped Niki come to terms with what mattered more to him, his wife. Viewed through that lens, it could be possible to say that Lauda's rivalry with Hunt led him to succeed in finding greater meaning in life, even if he was blown halfway to hell in the process.
I think Rush does a great job in raising questions about the two central characters. In general, we tend to be fascinated with polar opposites. We like to make clear decisions between one side or the other. Hot or cold. East or West, Hunt or Lauda. Rush presents us with two opposing characters in pursuit of the same goal, and then lets us watch how they pursue it differently. I’d argue that it’s difficult to determine who the hero of this story is, because it may simply be a matter of perspective. Also, the fun is that there is no right answer to these questions.
So who would you rather be? Hunt or Lauda?