Ron Howard deftly executes a stunning movie turnabout. When the film opens, we the audience are led to believe we are watching a movie that back in the 80s would have starred Tom Cruise playing the dashing by-the-seat-of-his-pants racecar driver / fighter pilot facing a generic ice-in-his-veins opponent. And in the hands of Chris Hemsworth, Hunt is exactly that. But slowly, the movie reveals itself to be every bit the story of Hunt's careful, calculating, rat-faced opponent (Daniel Bruhl).
This is no mere good-guy-bad-guy story; rather, it is a remarkable demonstration of the upsides and downsides of alpha and beta personalities. Hunt was handsome and charming, here and in real life. He also drank heavily, abused drugs, drove away his wife (into the arms of Richard Burton) with his verbal abuse and shameless philandering. In other words, all alpha, zero beta. This stands in contrast to Lauda, a man who wasn't much to look at even before the accident that left his face a mass of scar tissue. He was also singularly lacking in social grace, telling even his friends and colleagues without restraint what he thought of them (apparently, not much). He obsessed over the minutiae of automotive engineering, to his racing success. A nerd, in other words. But in the movie, he and his wife are loyal and protective of each other. (In real life, this is more mixed: his fifteen-year marriage had to survive at least one affair that produced an illegitimate son.)
Howard's account of Lauda's initial courtship (if you can call it that) is one of the most compelling demonstrations of "nerd game" I have seen in a movie. Niki hitches a ride with Marlene after a party and promptly starts telling her everything wrong with her car's engine based on the sound. Marlene, who doesn't follow Formula One, is clearly put out at the presumption of this little man, and doesn't give him any credit when the car duly breaks down. But the ice starts to melt when they are picked up by a couple of racing fans who recognize him and prevail upon him to drive their car the rest of the way; she warms up once his fame and driving skills have been demonstrated.
This film is relatively unusual for Ron Howard in the level of profanity, nudity and explicit sex. But here we see the turnabout: initially enticing, Howard shows it to be empty and destructive.