It’s been a decade since the best motorsports film of all time was released.
Sept. 20, 2013: Ron Howard’s Rush is wide-released in the United States to a warm critical reception and just as positive of an audience approval. The film dramatized the 1976 Formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively).
So, naturally, I revisited it on Sept. 20, 2023, its to-the-day 10th anniversary. I’d seen it three or four times beforehand, of course, but I’m blown away every single revisit by how much I love it. I already believe it’s the best movie about racing ever made and every re-watch reinforces that belief.
As with any film, the script and direction take liberties with the story, but in this case they’re relatively minimal in the scope of the story. Lauda and Hunt were actually good friends off the track; the film acknowledges that the rivalry was played up amongst media and fans. Admittedly, enhancing said rivalry works to the film’s benefit, but it retains its level of truth by having what’s more or less a reconciliation between the pair at its conclusion.
On a filmmaking level, there’s none better than Rush. The racing scenes are balanced well with the narrative and slotted in perfectly, touching on every aspect of those moments for a cohesive, immersive experience. And the way everything is shot — moderately oversaturated yet vibrant with color, but still with a very grungy, gritty edge to it — fits the era it takes place in perfectly. There’s an element of danger to the way this movie was filmed.
Hans Zimmer, the master, is at the helm of the score and it’s pitch-perfect. Additionally, I love the way the timeline is presented — it’s mostly linear, with a couple flashbacks here and there. It speeds viewers through the 1976 season while lingering on certain moments or races, but never goes too fast or slows down enough without a reason. We’re swept along for the ride without becoming bogged down in too much minutiae and everything feels like it was done with intent.
Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula 1, and each year, two of us die.
What kind of person does a job like this?
Not normal men, for sure. Rebels. Lunatics. Dreamers.
People who are desperate to make a mark and are prepared to die trying.
Lauda’s opening monologue sets the tone for the film and the era: a high-speed sport with very little safety and a pretty high chance at death whenever a violent crash happens — the cars is “just a little coffin, really,” in Hunt’s words. That monologue plays over a montage of the pre-race grid at Nurburgring: Lauda already in his car, Hunt smiling with fans and/or girlfriends, Jody Scheckter’s notable six-wheel Tyrrell P34, teams prepping the cars. Bruhl, as Lauda, details that he’s remembered for this championship battle … and for what happened on Aug. 1, 1976 — “when I was chasing [Hunt] like an a**hole.”
Racing fans know exactly what he’s talking about, but it’d be pretty interesting to get perspective from a viewer who had no idea what he meant and had to wait 90 minutes to find out.
Right before lights out, we cut to internal shots of the engines firing, an overhead tracking shot of ducts with fluid at the bottom, pedals, speedometers, tires spinning…just about every single element of a high-energy race start possible.
We briefly see Hunt and Lauda battling and it’s all done under this overcast, rainy sky with incredibly saturated colors. It feels perfect for the era and just clicks perfectly with the tone, the subject matter and what’s to come. Howard’s execution of the opener conveys exactly what we’re along on this ride for.
Hard cut back in time to establishing Hunt as a playboy (featuring a brief Natalie Dormer cameo during her time on Game of Thrones and prior to joining the Hunger Games franchise), Lauda as a serious threat to Hunt’s prowess and the first run-in between them.
We bounce back and forth between Hunt and Lauda’s journeys to Formula 1; Hunt winning in the lower divisions before eventually debuting in F1 with Hesketh, Lauda buying a ride and subsequently joining Ferrari and advising them on making the cars faster (and not exactly endearing himself to teammate Clay Regazzoni).
And then, boom, it’s time for Watkins Glen International and death! Meant to show the sharp, quick and ruthless danger of the sport at the time, the drivers are milling around during qualifying when a horrific crash occurs.
From my research, the crash they show is a combination of Francois Cevert and Helmuth Koinigg’s fatal 1973 and 1974 crashes, respectively; Cevert’s car is represented and Koinigg’s type of crash (Cevert crashed in the esses, while Koinigg’s car hit a double Armco barrier, sliding through the bottom one while he was decapitated by the upper). It’s an interesting decision, but an effective one, as we see the grisly aftermath for a brief moment through the smoke.
Hunt is more impacted by the crash, while Lauda chalks it up to driver error and moves on. Howard’s balance of all of these career aspects — their journeys through the ranks, how they handle the pressure and danger, their personal relationships (Hunt with a revolving door of women while Lauda meets someone by chance) and their grudging respect-slash-resentment of each other is equally distributed so as to never feel like the movie slows down (it is called Rush, after all).
And so begins the 1976 season after Hunt lands a ride with McLaren after a desperate offseason search, while Lauda still comfortably rides with Ferrari. Pretty much every race of the season gets its own small spotlight as Lauda wins five of the first nine, Hunt in hot pursuit with on-and-off-track drama plaguing him. First, his car is disqualified after winning the Spanish Grand Prix (this victory was later reinstated).
Second, Hunt and wife Suzy Miller divorce, leading to more personal struggles for him while Lauda gets married — we see Hunt noticing newspapers everywhere with tabloid headlines about his wife, Hunt joining the mile-high club on a flight and, eventually, Hunt and Lauda literally exchanging barbs while signing autographs for fans.
Rush essentially has two climactic sequences: the Nurburgring and Suzuka. The Nurburgring is where we show the initial scene again right after Lauda attempts to protest the race being run to no avail (due to dangerous conditions). Hunt pulls away after pit stops while Lauda’s crew slows him down, plus Niki gets pissed off at Mario Andretti in the John Player Special machine.
That sets in motion Lauda chasing Hunt, followed by his horrific crash into the barriers that’s recreated for the film nearly blow-by-blow thanks to a camera angle from up on a hill of the actual accident. I’ve always admired how three or four fellow drivers came to Lauda’s aid despite the roaring flames in the Ferrari’s cockpit, and that’s shown in detail in the film.
Lauda’s recovery isn’t sugarcoated. There’s one particular scene where doctors are draining his lungs, using a metal tube put straight down his throat. Few things make me queasy or physically cringe when it comes to movies, but that’s one that achieves the reaction every single time.
Once Lauda returns, he’s asked at a press conference whether, essentially, he and his wife could go on with the way he looks after his burns. He abruptly closes the presser with a “F**k you” and leaves; Hunt finds the reporter and beats the living hell out of him. Did this happen? No. Does it add a crucial element of character to Hunt? Absolutely.
The finale wraps up at Suzuka, where Lauda attempts to race but excellent camerawork helps us in the department of understanding how insanely difficult it was to race with impaired vision — in the rain, no less. DIsplaying a driver’s perception of risk vs. logic, Lauda stops his car and lets the championship go in favor of living another day.
Rush closes with Hunt and Lauda running into each other at an airfield, where Hunt is about to fly off to another championship celebration while Lauda works on his plane. It’s a moment that could easily be of bitterness, clashing ideologies or hostility; instead, there’s a high regard between the two drivers. Both are critical of the other, but it’s in a purely racing-based fashion.
Let’s do a very quick rundown of our cast and crew: Ron Howard is in the director’s chair, having won two Oscars while putting together a legendary list of credits including direction for Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and more. Rush is just his second movie of the decade, but continues his trend of films like the aforementioned two, as well as entries like Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man, of adapting historical events. Howard then adapts Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, one of my all-time favorite books two years later; it doesn’t turn out great.
As for the cast, it’s led by Hemsworth as Hunt and Bruhl as Lauda. Hemsworth is already in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thor; he’s been in a few things here and there (Star Trek, The Cabin in the Woods, but has his biggest roles ahead of him. He also appears in In the Heart of the Sea two years later.
Bruhl already had a hell of a lot of German titles under his belt by this point, but his biggest titles consisted of The Bourne Ultimatum and his turn as Nazi private Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (plus the same role in Nation’s Pride, the short film shown in that movie and directed by Eli Roth). There’s still a few years before Bruhl himself enters the Marvel universe; he also appears in the incredible 2022 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Also involved: Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s wife, the same year she appeared in Her and after roles in Cowboys vs. Aliens and Tron: Legacy. Quick shout-out too to Vincent Riotta, who’s shown up in everything from The Dark Knight to Tar to The Two Popes.
As we look back on 10 years of Rush, I’m constantly impressed by the film on rewatch. I haven’t seen Thirteen Lives, but by what I’ve seen and ratings I’d say he hasn’t made a better film since. For Hemsworth, it’s probably his best career role, and best dramatic turn if nothing else, while I’d say the same for Bruhl (though he’s phenomenal in Inglourious Basterds).
The same goes for Wilde, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the supporting cast: Alexandria Maria Lara as Lauda’s wife Marlene, Pierfrancesco Favino as Lauda’s teammate Clay Regazzoni, Christian McKay as Lord Hesketh and so many more.
“Begrudging respect” might be the most applicable character theme here. Hunt and Lauda had two very different lifestyles, on-track approaches, ways of handling their teams and differed on a lot of things. Yet they raced each other with respect on the track, didn’t have a bad relationship off it and put together one of the greatest championship battles F1 had ever seen to that point.
As Bruhl (as Lauda) says in the final voiceover:
People always think of us as rivals,
but he was among the very few I liked and even fewer I respected.
He remains the only person I envied.
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.
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