It’s interesting—to watch the trailer and look at the publicity, one would think that Rush (2013), which tells the story of the 1976 Formula One season, was exclusively about James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the brash and carefree British driver who dominates the movie’s posters and promotional material. The movie is actually just as interested in Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the humorless, lethally efficient German racer, Hunt’s rival, who was more successful on the racetrack but couldn’t endear himself to the public the way Hunt and his charismatic bravado could. Perhaps it’s just as well that the movie focuses mainly on Lauda because, like Lauda, it is relatively humorless and lethally efficient. Hunt was a great improviser who drove with his gut. Lauda, they say, had the race won days before he competed in it, having coldly dissected every outcome mentally so that actually performing it was routine. Like Lauda, the movie is calculating, devising every possible angle for excitement, but also like Lauda, in execution it’s rather routine: competent, exceptional even in parts, but ultimately fails to endear itself to us.
Hunt and Lauda shared a professional and personal distaste for each other, having competed against one another from the beginning of their careers in semipro circuits below Formula One. (Apparently, in real life, Lauda and Hunt were roommates in the early days and were always fond of each other, though things did get tense in the ultracompetitive ’76 season.) In the movie, Lauda sees the freewheeling Hunt as dangerous and a waste of his natural talent; Hunt sees Lauda, who came from money and bought his way into the best cars, as a robot with a good car. Throughout the season, reigning champion Lauda takes a commanding lead in the standings. When he protests against racing on a rainy day, Lauda is derided as cowardly by Hunt and others. Lauda begrudgingly races anyway and crashes badly, horribly burning his face. While Lauda heals in the hospital, Hunt races his way back into the championship mix, and the final third of the movie shows Lauda’s courageous return to the track to defend his title and Hunt’s continued challenge for it.
There is gripping drama here to be sure, and director Ron Howard knows how to squeeze out every ounce of it. The final race not only pits Hunt against Lauda, but the race also takes place in the rain, and Howard visually suggests the potential for a mechanical malfunction in both our heroes’ cars. However, it’s the fact that we have two heroes that makes the movie feel uneven and never at home with itself. There are two competing elements at play here: a relatively adult examination about a rivalry between two men who learn to respect each other and an exciting heart-pounding classic sports story. Those two things can exist both at once, but it takes more skill than Rush exhibits. The examination of Lauda is more thorough (the actual Lauda consulted on the movie) and a picture of a sad man whose self-esteem is entirely linked to the times he’s driving a race car emerges. But Hunt is presented more superficially, as not much more than a heedless jock, drinking and screwing his way through life. (There’s some early voiceover from Hunt [voiceover that accompanies the first third of the movie then goes entirely away, a biopic cliché that I loathe] that spouts something about being close to death is when one is most alive but that’s about as much characterization as we get).
Still, the pair’s depiction is fairly compelling, mirroring a Mozart-Salieri dynamic except one where Salieri is just as good as Mozart if not better and is bitterly jealous of him anyway. All of this would be fine if that truly were the crux of the movie, but Rush insists on also giving us the rah-rah sports movie angle, except we have two underdogs to root for. The movie awkwardly shifts our allegiance from one to the other and the results are less than satisfying. It would be as if in Apollo 13 (1995), Howard’s greatest achievement, the spacecraft were joined in space by a rival spaceship that was also wounded and dying, and we had two crews scrambling to save themselves while competing against each other for time and resources. Howard can be very good when he’s focused on a single strong story (that’s not a slight, focus and simplicity are often the best attributes a director can have), but when he’s all over the place, as he is here, emotional confusion occurs.
The presence of Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), Hunt’s erstwhile wife, epitomizes the movie’s need for tightening. She’s an extraneous character but she appears in the movie to reveal that she left Hunt to break up one of the marriages of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That is an interesting situation, one that might make for its own compelling movie, but it has little bearing on the 1976 Formula One season and therefore shouldn’t be in the movie (Hunt, who proposed to Miller on the day they met, seems unfazed that she’s left him and completely capable of racing without her). Conversely, the most lovely sequence in Rush is Lauda’s shy courting of Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). He meets her in Italy when he is in need of a ride. She is driving him somewhere when her car breaks down (an event he predicted by detecting, by sound, that her fan belt was loose, which, while true, doesn’t make for killer romantic banter). Stranded on the side of the road, the movie shamelessly re-creates the famous hitchhiker scene in It Happened One Night (1934) when Lauda tries unsuccessfully to grab the attention of the passing cars while Marlene wanders into the road in a leggy dress and is immediately attended to by a car screeching to a halt. This homage, which has long since passed into cliché, is then turned on its head when it turns out the car-obsessed Italians who stopped are much more interested in meeting the great Niki Lauda than stopping for Marlene. This sequence adds to Lauda’s character; it shows he is vulnerable when he isn’t racing, and that Marlene, who hasn’t any clue who he is, becomes interested in him outside of his abilities. And Marlene proves to be a more important partner to Lauda than Suzy ever was to Hunt.
Despite the conflicting emotional loyalties, the racing sequences still quicken the pulse, thanks to the pure muscle of the filmmaking (though the real-life footage of F1 races assembled in the documentary Senna  are more thrilling), and the performances, especially by Brühl, forgive me, drive the movie forward in an entertaining way. But movies are funny that way, they’re a little like cars, they can have all good parts, from the tires to the transmission to the driver, and still be less than the sum of them.