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The swingin' ’70s set the stage for Rush

It was 1976, a year when all the groovy girls were traipsing around in tiny suede skirts and all the cool guys had Badfinger hair. One of those guys was English racing driver James Hunt, the charismatic rapscallion who won that year's Formula One World Championship. (The embroidered badge on his driving suit read "Sex, the Breakfast of Champions.") His nemesis, Austrian-born Niki Lauda, was something else again, a straight arrow with square hair and equally rigid rules about how, exactly, one ought to put the pedal to the metal.

Lauda had won the championship in 1975 and had every reason to think he could do so again. What happened when he faced Hunt during the 1976 season surprised, horrified and ultimately amazed everyone who followed the sport. That championship year is the subject of Rush, which pulls off a mini-miracle itself: It's both a perceptive dual character study and, that rarity of rarities, a large-scale action movie for grownups, one worth leaving the house for.

It's also the last thing you might expect from Ron Howard, a director who's made some terrific films (Splash, Frost/Nixon) but whose earnestness and dutiful, workmanlike approach has also resulted in prestige snoozers like Apollo 13. Then again, this is the guy who made his directing debut with Grand Theft Auto, for shlock impresario Roger Corman, and Rush seems to have shaken something awake in him. If the storytelling sometimes feels a bit scrambled, the racing sequences make up for it. Rush is flawed but alive, and its actors never get lost in the blur of speed. If the movie is partly about machines — a flimsy type of race car that Hunt calls "just a little coffin, really" — it's just as much about men who know precisely what to do in those split seconds when there's no time to blink, let alone think.

Those daring young men in their jaunty jalopies.
Jaap Buitendijk/Universal Pictures
Those daring young men in their jaunty jalopies.

Chris Hemsworth, of Thor fame, plays Hunt, and you can see why the driver is a national treasure even in a country that's almost embarrassed to have national treasures. Hunt is England's version of California — blond, insouciant and randy. He loves the ladies almost as much as he loves driving. But the person who really gets under his skin is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl. The two meet, very uncute: They walk away from their first, and every subsequent, encounter muttering "asshole."

But Lauda and Hunt are always there for each other, sometimes more so than for the women in their lives. (Olivia Wilde plays Hunt's wife, the model Suzy Miller, who left him for Richard Burton after his indifference toward her became unbearable; the stunning Romanian-born actress Alexandra Maria Lara plays Lauda's loyal partner, Marlene, though the womenfolk are pretty much relegated to the back seat here.) Lauda and Hunt growl and spar, but they also urge one another on, understanding each other better than anyone else ever could. At one point, Hunt explains in voiceover, "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," a sentiment brought home to Lauda the hard way. In case you don't know the story, I won't divulge the details here, but Howard, working from a script by Peter Morgan, dramatizes the event that changed Lauda's life in a way that's horrifying and direct; he hits a pitch of fiery, claustrophobic intensity that's hard to shake.

 
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