That each of these Formula One drivers sees himself in the other makes them a perfect couple, but also a terrible combination.
"I don't know why it became such a big thing," says Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). He means his rivalry with another Formula One racer during the 1976 season, but as he speaks, you're looking at that other driver, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), as he smiles and -- in slow motion -- tosses his long blond hair. The contrast between the two competitors could not be more stark, Niki almost painfully earnest and determined, James hard-drinking and, as they used to call it, philandering, ever surrounded by adoring fans and pretty girls. You see the big deal before it starts.
Most plainly, according to Ron Howard's Rush, that deal is the competition, presented as something like an opposition of types, the hedonist and the student, the natural talent and the assiduous hard worker. Niki describes their relationship in these sorts of terms, resenting the ease with which James is not only a star but also a winner. Sure that instincts cannot sustain a career, much less a structured life, Niki seeks rigor and measurable accomplishment, pitting himself against others in order to define himself.
In this, Niki is symptomatic of a broader culture rather than deviant. He and James are part of a specific moment in Formula One racing, when cars and tracks were unsafe by definition, and provided a means of measuring men as such. If Niki ponders the attention they draw -- "We're just drivers" -- he and James also figure out how to milk it, to use that attention to get what they want, primarily, cars to drive on those scary tracks. The movie recounts how they manage this, their separate but related journeys toward the climactic year of 1976, their time as drivers of lesser cars, on rowdier tracks.
No surprise, both are sons of rich men who disapprove of their desires to race. Niki's a rich Austrian kid whose father quite despises his simultaneously trivial and hazardous career choice; in a brief, neat confrontation, the son sits across from his dad at a dark wood table, their hostility bland and shared, their conversation utterly formal and strangely devastating. That's not to say the scene suggests anything specific about Niki, who, for all his narrating during the film, is a type as much as James; he's the smart, nerdy kid who finds a way to taunt and beat out the men who judge him. In this he's also aligned with James, whose rebellion begins in much the same way -- a rejection of a wealthy father's hopes -- but takes a very different shape, an embrace of sensual pleasure and recklessness.
That their opposition forms such a nifty narrative structure is the film's work. In hindsight, in the shape given their lives by Rush, the difference is refracted into sameness and metaphor. Niki's version of order brings him to see in the competition a reason for living, even as this worries his soulful wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he woos early in the film by driving fast. After a terrible wreck where he's burned almost to death, she stands in doorways, blurred out in shallow focus, a presence to help you feel anxious more than to support him.
Miki's recovery follows a series of painful procedures. The shots here recall the races, in which the camera offers multiple views, grainy shots of the track through windshields or mounted near wheels, or uncomfortably close shots of set jaws or eyes behind helmet glass, sometimes inside the helmet, so you might share something of the disquieting confinement they feel. In the hospital, the camera is set close to NIki's eyes again, especially as he determines to put on a helmet over his raw flesh, needing to know he can drive again. Here the camera is so close you can count eyelashes, so close you can't read what he's feeling. But you can guess.
And as you guess, you get the idea that the men do a lot of guessing too. Asked what makes racecar drivers so attractive to women, James puts some poetry on it: "It's our closeness to death," he says, "The more alive you are, they can see that in you, they can feel that in you." The romance he's peddling is his and Niki's self-delusion, a romance to which the women they imagine are peripheral, if helpful. What's at stake here is his mutual measuring with But you see that his wildness is a sort of calculation too, an effort to be seen or to forget he feels unseen. That his hard charging makes James excessively visible seems something of an accident. It could easily have ended otherwise.
And in a way it does. For everyone knows that James Hunt, after bedding dozens of girls, puking before his many races and marrying and divorcing the model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) within the year the film covers, does end up a champion but also unwilling to put up that particular effort again. It's exhausting, all that gallivanting. And besides, he's easily distracted, or maybe more accurately, he pursues distraction.
This is what Rush gets most right, the pursuit -- no matter then end. Niki, the Formula One Champion in 1975, wants to do it again and believes he can use his rivalry with James to do it. James, after winning in 1976, is less interested. Both drivers are courageous but also loutish and abusive, unable to see beyond themselves. That each sees himself in the other makes them a perfect couple, but also a terrible combination. Their mistakes are inevitable, their survival uncertain. And this in a movie where you know the end before it starts.