Based on a true story of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. This is a good sports movie in that you don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate it. It’s about much bigger issues that we all can relate to: The desire for success and accomplishment, the search for meaning and purpose and love.
In its most basic form the story is a competition of two worldviews about life embodied in the main characters. Niki Lauda is a by the numbers techie nerd who gets into race car driving to pursue the winning of discipline and perfection of craft. James Hunt is a womanizing adrenaline junkie who wants to have fun, live fast and die hard. I think that’s what makes this movie so fascinating in one sense. To see these polar opposites in contrast, and both of them equal rivals with strengths and weaknesses.
Along with his proper rules following, Niki also marries one woman and stays with her to the end, while James tries marriage after a string of “lays” only to fail at it because he is so selfish in his obsession and ambition that he cannot give to another. But Niki’s neurotic obsession with details and his emotional detachment because of his intellectualism causes its own trouble in his marriage. When James is asked why all the girls are drawn to race car drivers, is it because of the cars and daringness? He responds, “No. It’s because the closer you are to death, the more alive you are, and the more alive you are, the more desirable you are.” He concludes that man’s nobility is to stare death in the face and risk it all. There is another statement he makes about how there is a something stronger than the will to survive and that is the will to win. In fact, he is even prepared to die by driving in a dangerously rainy race because of his wildness. While Niki is so concerned with safety, says, “To me, that’s losing.” It is all about getting the details right, making the car the best specimen of mechanical perfection and playing safely by the rules to win.
Ironically however, everyone votes to keep the race against Niki’s advice and Niki is the guy who gets in an accident on that rainy day. He gets third degree burns over his body and has a grueling path to physical recovery, only to jump back in the race to try to defeat James. There is even a point where Niki has fallen in love with his wife, but he laments that “Happiness is the enemy. It’s weakness. Because you have something to lose.” His wife says that if he feels that way, then they have already lost. But it is a profound truth that the love of another will bring that kind of value and meaning to life that is absent from those who seek experience and thrills. Why? Because love is sacrifice and sacrifice opposes the self.
And this kind of wraps up for me what was the sad tragedy of this movie about winning.
Here’s why: It is a movie about winning, and about the price you pay to win. It’s got some honest moments and challenges to the obsession of such ambition. But it ultimately does not offer any transcendence. By the end of the movie, both guys have the winning moments and losing moments against each other, both end champions, but it is a very empty achievement to me. There is no transcendence about what really matters in life. Because at the end, a bunch of trophies and historic achievements in sports really contain no lasting meaning. And the two men have ended lonely at the top, without intimacy of true friendship, without what really matters, what really lasts. I am not even asking that they deal with God, although facing death and never thinking about God is truly inauthentic and dishonest storytelling. I am just saying that, you know Jackie Robinson, fought for the respect of black human beings in baseball. (42 was a boring movie, but at least it had transcendence). Rudy was about a young kid touching people’s lives with his determination. Chariots of Fire is about doing sports for a higher purpose, We Are Marshall is about the team spirit and our need for community. Secretariat was about the American spirit of determination and women’s liberation. I could go on with other sports movies that have transcendence that make them rise above mere victories or achievements. But in Rush, Hunt and Lauda just end up alone and James even dies young of a heart attack. For what? For fun? For records that will be overrun and forgotten in the mists of history anyway? There is not even a hint of the transcendence that they lack.
I am not so sure that this emptiness is what Ron Howard was attempting to prove either. I just don’t know for sure. But I do know that the movie left a bad taste in my soul about the obsessive ambition of winning without transcendence in your life. It made winning look empty. Maybe that’s what the intent was, to tell a story where winning is losing. But without pointing to a higher purpose or transcendence, Howard leaves us with a bleak cynical view of life in the midst of shallow victory. In Rush, there is no transcendence offered, and therefore an interesting movie with an unsatisfying ending.