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A very brief commercial reminder preceded the beginning of this week’s preview of Ron Howard’s Rush: “NBC. The exclusive home of Formula One racing.” Whether this pitch will produce much of a result can be questioned. Americans have never cottoned to this European-style motor sport that’s run on both tracks and public roadways, and they won’t learn much from this movie. Rush does provide visceral impacts in its racing scenes, as the title promises.

Rush opens with ominous, almost funereal music and a voiceover that solemnly notes the perils of Formula One in the 1970s—an average of two driver deaths a year—adding a kind of tribute to “the rebels, lunatics, and dreamers” who race. The movie’s real focus is the heated rivalry of two of them in the mid-1970s—the Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). In the movie’s conception, these two were strikingly different and incompatible. Hunt was a tall glamour puss with a well-earned reputation as a bon vivant and a magnet for females. His chief antagonist, on and off the race course, was the unglamorous, somewhat homely Lauda. (Brühl’s natural attractiveness is camouflaged by false teeth, makeup, and lighting.) The Austrian was methodical and a driven competitor; Hunt an impulsive and gifted racer.

When we first encounter him, Hunt is casually walking into a hospital in his racing outfit, his face bleeding and a stab wound in his side, the result of an aggrieved husband. He only did what the wife “asked him to do,” he tells a nurse with insouciant charm. She fairly leaps into his arms in the examination room, of course.

Early on, Lauda is found supervising alterations to his race car in order to lighten it. He’s a powerfully compelled, factor-analyzing, and humorless man whose brusque confidence antagonizes drivers, especially the charismatically roguish Hunt, who responds with gibes and trash-mouth comments. Their story is rendered with broad-brushed, pulpy appeal. This relationship is probably overdrawn, but it’s the heart of the movie. And it’s lent some moral weight by its anchor in the historical and terrible consequences of that rivalry and the hazardous rules of the sport four decades ago. Rush swiftly works its way toward the 1976 world championship, with the two men in the lead.

Lauda’s fate is really what gives the picture its thematic substance and Brühl’s eventually touching performance is an asset. Hemsworth is more blondly bodacious than the real Hunt but his reckless playboy seems appropriate.

Howard has always been good with actors, and adept at setting up humorous sequences, but there’s little call for the latter skill in this one. And he’s overdone the hectic, agitated editing of race images. Audiences will have some difficulty getting a perspective on the racing scenes, literally. On the other hand, Rush is sometimes propulsively exciting. And it has a fact-rooted story of courage and remarkable achievement that’s soberly inspiring.

Watch the trailer for Rush

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