Niki Lauda gives James Hunt the evil eye.

Niki Lauda gives James Hunt the evil eye.

When I was a kid, I loved watching Formula One. It was the 80’s and tobacco and alcohol still sponsored the activity. Part of the charm (long gone now) was the certain possibility of drama during the race. Everything could happen: Mechanical failure, fistfights among pilots and, of course, death.

Rush covers an even wilder period, the 70’s, when an average of two pilots a year were expected to die. In this context, two drivers got involved in one of the most remarkable rivalries in sports: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds). Both born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Lauda joined F-1 with a self-made man attitude while Hunt adopted a playboy persona.

True to form, Hunt behaves instinctively in front of the wheel, while Lauda approaches every race in cold and calculating fashion. Their styles are bound to crash, but at the same time, their rivalry pushes them to strive higher. These factors and others combine to make the 1976 season the most exciting on record (if you don’t want to spoil the movie for yourself, avoid Wikipedia). Suffice to say, both the brutality of the sport and the pilots’ phenomenal will power come into play.

Director Ron Howard’s best film since Cinderella Man is also his first one outside the studio system. It helped him capture the grittiness of the competition and the insanity of those who partake. Outside the pitch-perfect casting of Hemsworth and Bruhl (his Niki Lauda should report him an Oscar nomination), the filmmaker’s best decision was to pick rough-and-tumble cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle to shoot his movie. Mantle is better known as Lars Von Trier’s DOP (Antichrist), and if there is something he has learned from the scary Dane is how to be stylistically brutal.

Howard allowed himself one boneheaded move: Hiring up-and-comer Olivia Wilde as James Hunt’s wife, a character of little importance that Wilde manages to make even more forgettable. Thankfully, the painstaking reconstruction and the thrill of the races make the audience forget the faux pas rather quickly.

Today, Formula One is more about the car than the pilot. The same guys keep on winning and nobody cares enough to remember their names (Sebastian, who?) For me, F-1 racing died with Senna.

Three and a half prairie dogs feel the need, the need for speed. Rush opens this Friday