Rush (U.S./U.K./Germany, 2013)September 24, 2013
Ron Howard is probably best known for making slick, well-produced, crowd pleasing motion pictures. From his early days behind the camera, with light fare such as Splash, to his most accomplished feature, Apollo 13, to his Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, Howard has enjoyed critical and popular success. Recent years have not been as kind to him, however. Re-teaming with screenwriter Peter Morgan (who wrote Frost/Nixon), Howard delves into somewhat darker and more adult territory than has been his norm and emerges with one of his better films of the last decade (trailing only the aforementioned Frost/Nixon for dramatic impact). Rush not only effectively presents a balanced view of the rivalry between two race car drivers but manages the difficult task of taking Formula One racing, an inherently non-cinematic sport, and translating it to the screen. The race scenes are tense and effectively staged but the movie's strength lies in its presentation of the characters, the forces that motivate them, and the mutual antagonism that fuels their competition.
The majority of the film offers a fictionalized recreation of the 1976 Formula One season, when James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) went toe-to-toe for the championship. Since about 95% of those viewing the film won't know the ending, I won't discuss it here, even though it's a matter of historical record. Howard's changes are minor and mostly focus on personal details, like how the characters meet and woo their eventual wives. In fact, one could make a convincing argument that the central romances - Hunt with model Suzy Miller (a blond Olivia Wilde) and Lauda with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) - are the film's least convincing aspects. In the past, Howard has shown the capacity to craft love stories, but that's something not in evidence in Rush.
Technically, Rush can be considered a "sports movie" in that it's about competitors struggling against one another to win a championship. In a generic movie of this sort, the "good guy" and "bad guy" are clearly delineated. Our rooting interest is preordained. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it skews the drama. For Rush, Howard and Morgan take a different tack. The story is nicely balanced between Hunt and Lauda. Both are shown "warts and all", with Hunt depicted as a superficial, preening, self-obsessed party boy and Lauda as a stuffy, unpleasant misanthrope. The film's unwillingness to "favor" one man over the other leads to an unusual dynamic. We become invested in both men's lives and the winning of the championship, while still important, is a secondary concern.
It's safe to say that, without each of the men to push the other, neither would have been as successful. Lauda's accident, which is foreshadowed during the first scene, is a defining moment in their relationship. He is goaded into participating in a dangerous race because he can't bear to lose face to Hunt. Then, as he's recovering, Hunt's successes during his absence become his motivation to return. As he later notes, although Hunt was instrumental in his being injured, he was an equally important factor in his recovery.
This is no indie production; Howard's Hollywood credentials are in evidence. The movie boasts impressive production values, including effective period detail. The racing sequences are expertly mounted. And there's plenty of tension in the various contests, especially during the rainy finale in Japan. In order to keep events (relatively) accurate, the screenplay is limited at times (for example, there's no climactic one-on-one "race off" between Hunt and Louda because that's not what happened in 1976) but, if anything, the element of restraint makes things fell less like a cookie-cutter, manufactured production.
With a reported budget under $40 million, Howard cut cost by limiting the number of "name" hires. Rush features no A-list stars, although Chris Hemsworth, by wielding Thor's hammer, is headed in that direction. Hemsworth is very good here, exhibiting personality and range when freed from the constraints of a comic book iteration of a Norse god. Olivia Wilde is another recognizable name, but she's pretty awful in a thankfully limited role. Daniel Bruhl gives the best performance of the film, melding righteous indignation with a flair for invention and an asocial personality, but this may be the first time 99% of the audience is seeing him (although he had supporting roles in both Inglourious Basterds and The Bourne Ultimatum).
With a few cuts, Rush probably could have gone out with a PG-13. The boobs, butts, and single shot of a mangled body after a car crash could easily have been sanitized. I respect Howard for not doing that. This isn't a story that will appeal to teenage boys, anyway, so why try to make it for them? Rush is for adults who like a little (but not too much) ambiguity in their sports stories. Formula One fans who remember 1976 will no doubt delight in the film but, for those who (like me) were more interested in other things during the year of America's bicentennial, it's not only a good lesson in sports history but an entertaining two hours to spend in a theater.
Rush (U.S./U.K./Germany, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Peter Morgan
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music: Hans Zimmer