After three best-picture Oscar nominations, it's pretty clear Ron Howard is a talented movie director. “Rush” makes more clear the particular gift he has for creating suspense telling a true story whose outcome is already known.
He did it with “Apollo 13.” He did it with “Cinderella Man” and “Frost/Nixon.”
Now comes “Rush,” the story of the famous rivalry between Formula 1 racecar drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
As with those other films, Howard and crew put you on the edge of your seat by not only retelling an exciting, high-stakes story but also by shaping characters you can't help but feel something about.
Lauda and Hunt, polar opposites in personality, give you strong reasons to both greatly admire and actively dislike each of them. If you're like me, you'll root for different guys at different points in the film. By the last race of the 1976 season, which will determine who becomes the world champion, you'll have chosen somebody to root for — whether you know the outcome or not.
Lauda, a dour Austrian, is all about calculating risk factors, working on the car to the point of perfection, practicing self-discipline and focus to get him to the checkered flag. But his people skills are terrible, and he's not popular among the drivers.
Hunt, a handsome British playboy, is all about having fun. He drinks too much, stays out all night partying, runs through women as fast as he does racing tires, takes risks on the track he shouldn't — risks that might endanger other drivers as well as himself.
They have certain traits in common, as well: a keen sense of competition, oversize egos, a recognition of the ever-present mortal danger in their chosen professions. They are, as Lauda says in a voice-over, desperate to make a mark.
Their enmity eventually edges toward something more than grudging respect, as they realize the rivalry pushes both of them to be better than they would be without each other.
What makes this film great? Let me count the ways.
Start with a smart, condensed script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”), who accomplishes the perfect balance between adrenaline-pumping races and character-defining off-track scenes. The dialogue often crackles.
A tip of the hat to Chris Hemsworth, who brings great sex appeal and likability to his character, and who actually looks a lot like the real Hunt. Expect flashes of nudity and sex to spice up his off-track antics.
As Lauda, Daniel Bruhl brings the intensity and an essential unlikable quality to the role, along with several truly memorable moments. One of them: screaming in pain as he tries to pull his helmet over burns yet unhealed from a crash, so that he can get back on the track with Hunt. I smell an Oscar nomination.
Film editors Mike Hill (an Omaha resident) and Dan Hanley are in the running for a fifth Oscar nod. Pay attention to how quick edits of racing sequences crank up the excitement and suspense while clearly informing, and how subtle edits of dialogue sequences elevate the acting.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also does great work here, particularly in the way racing sequences make you experience a slice of how vulnerable it feels to be behind the wheel.
Kudos to Howard for successfully telescoping an entire racing season, plus lead-up, into 123 minutes, and for getting those dialogue scenes just as right as he does the racing. This is a movie that's pumping on all cylinders, one that will appeal to an adult audience — regardless of whether you care about auto racing.