James Hunt and Niki Lauda could hardly be more different—in outlook, in appearance, in their approach to Formula 1 racing.
When Britain's James Hunt pulls his helmet off, he looks like a Norse god. Austria's Niki Lauda, meanwhile, looks more like a rat than a deity. Hunt's rakish good looks paired with his flowing blond mane and a mischievous, devil-may-care smirk work alchemical magic on female supplicants (the carnal offerings of whom he, like a famished god enjoying his just due, has no problem receiving).
Lauda, conversely, couldn't care less what his fans think of him. He's driven by a singular passion: to be the world's best racer. That means winning international racing's big prize, the Formula 1 title. Accordingly, at the beginning of any given race-day he might be found on the track evaluating curves at 5:00 a.m. (about the time Hunt might be evaluating a completely different set of curves at the end of any given night).
For Lauda, winning races isn't about instinct or daring, as it is for the preternaturally talented Hunt. No, for Niki Lauda, winning races is a science, a discipline he prosecutes with zealous, meticulous scrutiny.
At the beginning of the 1976 season, the stage has been set: It's the British playboy vs. the Austrian perfectionist. Lauda's methodical precision yielded the championship the year before, and Hunt is bent upon preventing a repeat performance. Lauda coolly assures Hunt that he has no chance. Hot-blooded Hunt is determined to make Lauda eat his words.
Science does indeed trump natural ability in the first half of the season, with Lauda systematically blitzkrieging his way to six victories in the first nine races. Meanwhile, the one win Hunt ekes out gets disqualified by Lauda's team because the Austrian reports that Hunt's tires are too wide.
And then … the Ring.
Germany's infamous Nürburgring. A track 14.2 miles long snaking through a mindboggling 177 turns. A track that averaged nearly three driver fatalities a year in its first 56 years of existence. A track that racer Jackie Stewart dubbed "The Green Hell." A track flanked by foreboding trees casting long shadows as they await new victims.
It's a track that Lauda fears.
And when he, Hunt and 23 other Formula 1 racers awaken on the morning of August 1, 1976 to find rain pouring over its sinewy, serpentine twists and turns, he knows that the danger is even greater.
James Hunt is devilishly likeable, but ultimately his insatiable appetite for fleshly indulgences—sex, drink, marijuana—make him an increasingly tragic figure. He briefly marries supermodel Suzy Miller, but his vices prove more than she can bear, and she eventually ends up having an affair with aging actor Richard Burton before leaving Hunt. A voiceover by Lauda at the end of the film narrates Hunt's deepening descent into decadence after the '76 season: The Austrian racer laments that Hunt died of a heart attack at the age of 45, a commentary that depicts the fiery racer's life as something of a cautionary tale we'd do better not to imitate.
As for Lauda, he's got serious faults too, frequently demeaning anyone who disagrees with him. Indeed, when Lauda tries to convince his fellow racers not to go forward with the race on what will ultimately be a tragic day for him at the Ring, his surly, arrogant demeanor works against him, with the majority of drivers siding with Hunt, who favors a green flag.
Lauda suffers a horrific accident there and has to battle back from terrible wounds. Throughout the weeks of grueling rehab that follow, Lauda watches Hunt win race after race after race, erasing the seemingly insurmountable points lead Lauda had piled up early in the season. It proves a powerful motivator in his recovery. And then, against all odds and doctors' advice, Lauda pulls a helmet on—screaming in agony as it slides over the horrific, not-fully-healed scars on his head and face—in an incredibly brave attempt to win the championship.
For all their competition, however, in the end Lauda and Hunt develop a deep respect for each another. At a pre-race press conference after Lauda's valiant return, a reporter callously asks how Lauda's wife, Marlene, could stand to look at his now-scarred visage. Hunt later seeks to defend his compatriot's honor. (He does so totally inappropriately; more on that later.)
No one studies racing harder than Lauda, and that determination yields success—even when his rich father, an Austrian banker, doesn't believe his son can possibly win in racing. Lauda also has a keen sense of the risk involved in what he's doing, and if the risk surpasses a certain threshold, he won't race. In the last race at Fuji—where merely finishing would likely have secured a championship for him—he ultimately thinks of his wife and after a handful of laps drops out of the race.
After his accident, Lauda instructs someone to tell a Catholic priest who's present not to perform last rites. "Tell the priest to f‑‑‑ off. I'm still alive," he spits. Hunt flirts briefly with sexual abstinence in an attempt to focus on racing, saying that he has to develop a "mind like a monk."
Note that I said Hunt flirts with abstinence briefly. An early montage of his sexual liaisons features perhaps a dozen women, and the images include explicit movements, bare breasts and unclothed shots of both Hunt and his lovers from behind. A similar sequence is repeated at the end of the film, showing him intertwined with more mostly naked women.
Hunt has sex with a nurse at a hospital after a racing accident. They embrace passionately and pull each other's clothes off. Another explicit sex scene takes place in a shower. And still another (with more breast nudity) shows him with a flight attendant in a plane's lavatory. We see Hunt in bed with two women at once before a race. He gets a patch on his racing overalls that says, "Sex: Breakfast of Champions."
Lauda's wife swims topless on the couple's honeymoon, and the pair is shown in bed together. A race in Brazil boasts many women wearing risqué outfits.
Hunt's desire to defend Lauda manifests itself by him dragging the rude reporter into a room and pummeling his face, then telling the man to go home to see what his wife thinks of that.
We witness Lauda's big accident as he spins out of control and is hit by two cars, turning the wreckage into a fireball. The Austrian racer is trapped for more than a minute before other drivers can excavate him, resulting in horrible burns to his face and head (one of his ears and both of his eyelids are burnt off). We see him bloodied and bandaged in the hospital, and watch as doctors stick a long metal vacuum down his throat to clean out burned lung tissue. It's a procedure that Lauda asks for again to speed his recovery.
We glimpse a horribly mangled car that presumably took a racer's life. And another crash results in a bloody, gory and graphically displayed compound leg fracture. Hunt is shown with a bleeding wound to his abdomen after a racing accident.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 15 f-words and half-a-dozen or so s-words. There's one use of the c-word. Jesus' name is abused six times, God's name three or four. We hear six uses total of three vulgar slang terms for the male anatomy and see one obscene hand gesture. Add to that a handful of uses each of "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "bloody" and "b‑‑tard." Lauda harshly labels anyone and everybody he doesn't like an "a‑‑hole." Hunt mocks Lauda as a "kraut" and a "goose-stepper."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Hunt drinks continually, both beer and hard liquor, sometimes even before races. He has a similar penchant for smoking cigarettes and marijuana. In a dark moment, he drinks to the point of passing out. Hunt's crew is nearly as wild as he is, and we often see them drinking and carousing. In sharp contrast, Lauda rejects such wild living, and is as abstemious as Hunt is indulgent.
Other Negative Elements
Hunt vomits immediately before every race, something we witness several times. He says that he wants to live as if each day was his last, a personal ethos that leads him to unbridled hedonism and risk-taking.
Lauda drives recklessly on an Italian road in an attempt to impress a girl. On his honeymoon, Lauda describes a sharp tension between his newly married happiness and his love of racing. "Happiness is the enemy," he laments. "It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose."
Ron Howard is no stranger to realistic, historical drama, whether it's capturing a president's tussle with a feisty interviewer (Frost/Nixon), exploring the dangerous and unpredictable realities firefighters confront every day (Backdraft), diving headlong into the poignant struggles of those battling schizophrenia (A Beautiful mind) or observing the heroic efforts of three astronauts trying to make it back to Earth (Apollo 13).
With Rush, Howard has teamed up with British screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) to tell the gripping story of the rivalry between two fierce competitors. And part of the film's grip comes from the fact that neither is the clear-cut hero, with both James Hunt and Niki Lauda embodying noble and ignoble traits. Such is the power of Howard and Morgan's storytelling that viewers are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by each: You want both to win at some points, but you wouldn't mind when they're behaving badly if someone else put them in their place.
In the end, both men are consumed in different ways and utterly changed by that consumption: Lauda by a fire that forever alters his career and life; Hunt by an addictive, bottomless appetite for behaviors that ultimately and tragically end his life.
With regard to the latter, Howard has chosen to give us a decidedly R-rated depiction of Hunt's triumphant-but-tragic story, one that frequently involves naked women throwing themselves at his godlike celebrity. Howard says of the flesh-indulging characters and era he brings to life here, "It's a very sexy, fascinating period in global history and popular culture. … It was the tail end of the sexual revolution, where there was nothing to fear and everything to celebrate … when sex was safe and driving was dangerous. … When I hear wild stories about Formula 1, I realize people don't quite do those things today but they are not entirely alien to my own understanding of what the world of celebrity was like in the '70s."
Howard set out to craft a compelling take on an epic rivalry set in a hedonistic age, one that's earned many critical raves. But the amount of explicit debauchery on display constitutes a waving red flag for moviegoers.