If there’s one thing his directorial filmography has taught us, Ron Howard shines when he makes films that are based on a true story.
Howard is a natural born storyteller and historical dramatist who became just old enough to tell stories about the decade of his youth – the 1970s and all the exciting things happening in his time – at just the right time. There’s not a single movie where he doesn’t get a little liberal with the finer details of the main event or where he doesn’t omit certain facts that would be inconsistent with the melodramatic narrative he’s trying to build. Every single one of his historical biographies has an “accuracy” subsection on Wikipedia that will correct every tiny detail he supposedly got incorrect in the film, but Howard never tries for a complete account. He aims to capture the spirit of the events themselves – to inspire us to feel the very emotions he felt at the time all this was happening.
Now his nostalgia, motion picture directing sensibilities, crack artistic team, and love for exhilarating cinema have brought him to creating a film about the legendary rivalry between two great auto racers that culminated in the 1976 Formula One season.
Rush is a masterpiece of excellent storytelling, exhibiting character depth and endearment without the overbearing clichés of heroism or final showdown you might expect from a movie like this. The two central protagonists – James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) are well-rounded but heavily flawed human beings, with similar upbringings but starkly inimical philosophies on racing that we come to understand through their actions. The film builds upon these differences as the driving force behind an epic competition that had no clear good guy or bad guy. Both characters are wonderful in their own ways and also huge jerks in their own ways. This is a story about people first and a speedy action blockbuster second.
James Hunt is naturally talented and in the game first and foremost for the thrill of the race. He takes risks on the track that other drives are too afraid to take and his proximity to death is directly proportional to the euphoria of life. Knowing that he may be dead tomorrow, Hunt revelsl in the benefits (fame, fortune, liquor, & women) that come with the glory of being a champion, but he laps it all up far too often. He vomits before every race he drives and he cracks open a champagne bottle in front of the cameras after every race he wins. This is the best acting performance Chris Hemsworth has ever given.
Niki Lauda is a stoic heavily disciplined master of the technical. Like Hunt, he treats racing as a way of life, but he focuses on perfection in both his method and the car even if he has to keep an entire team of annoyed mechanics up all night to dismantle and rebuild the car according to his exact specifications. Every move he makes is based on a careful precise calculation he has already made. Anti-social and disliked in general, Lauda steers clear of the party scene, going by Ben Franklin’s early-to-bed-early-to-rise maxim. He was the victor of the 1975 Formula One racing season.
Other reviewers have been making the obvious respective grasshopper/ant comparison. So I’m instead going to compare them to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Lauda is the Leonardo to Hunt’s Michelangelo. With two characters like these, you probably think that you know exactly what the film is going to do with them. Lauda will be the villain and former champion eager to retain his title and Hunt will be the underdog who will pull off an act of god at the last second and win the race, right?
Not even close; Peter Morgan’s screenplay is just too smart for that. Lauda is incredibly sympathetic and flawlessly acted by Daniel Brühl. There’s a Niki Lauda in all of us – a self-conscious but seriously ambitious and perfectionistic practitioner of a trade eager to not only be the best, but prove it to everyone who doubts us. Rush is just as much a story about Lauda as it is about Hunt.
The fact is neither of the characters’ core philosophies is necessarily superior to the other. There are scenes where Hunt’s daring maneuvers win him the prize and scenes where Lauda’s mental processor and attention to the devil in the details put him on top. And several of these scenes feature both drivers racing against each other. The film isn’t about the ideal finding the appropriate middle ground between the two. It’s about each of these characters’ search for love and meaning for their lives as they also compete to win the ’76 Championship.
On that note, if there’s one ponderous problem the film has, it’s that the supporting characters aren’t very well developed. With all the screen time devoted to the charismatic Hunt and the empathetic Lauda, not nearly enough of it is able to go to their significant others – chiefly Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller (Hunt’s wife) and Alexandra Maria Lara’s Marlene Knaus (Lauda’s wife) or to Hunt’s family. They’re there, but their relationship with the leads is a little underplayed, particularly the former. The film casually dismisses their ostensible unimportance and acts like no one will notice. But it’s understandable because this film is also about how much Hunt and Lauda, despite their differences, ultimately need each other to elevate themselves more than they need their lovers.
There is absolutely nothing like having an equally matched rival – an enemy to bitterly fear yet deeply respect – to make you reflect on why you’re there, who you are, & what you want, and to sharpen your drive to win. They are the ones who will teach you by punishing you and make you earn your victory rather than claim it by default. They will understand you better than you understand yourself and they will force you to do the same to them.
Hunt’s worst enemy is himself and his reckless habits off the track. Without boring and square Niki Lauda, Hunt would have remained the impeccably talented but stagnant racer whose potential he promised was never realized. There’s a scene where a woman walks in on Hunt air practicing shifting, accelerating, and steering maneuvers on his couch. It would appear out of character for Hunt, but it’s actually perfectly in place. And as extroverted as he is and confident as he may come across, the truth is that he is utterly terrified. Similarly, he is too proud to admit how much he respects and admires Lauda, but the film will make it abundantly clear in one magnificent scene involving a press reporter that he very much does.
Lauda’s worst enemy is his appearance and general awkwardness around people who simply don’t understand him. It never gets easier for him even though he does find love, and even worse, something to live for. When he is temporarily sidelined and incapacitated by a horrific accident, watching Hunt win victory after victory was not only what kept him alive, but inspired him to get back into the race despite the doctors’ orders. And he’s not too proud to admit that.
The visceral enjoyment of watching fast cars tear it up at breakneck speeds is a key reason as to why Fast & Furious is such a successful franchise and an easy reason for why we love going to the movies. But Rush gives us something else – not one, but two faces behind the wheels, both of whom are fully-formed personalities that beautifully develop into the legends they are known as today. That’s not to say that the racing sequences are skimped. They’re thrilling – an electrifying yet simultaneously disquieting display of adrenaline pumping awesome with actual heart. The rapid cinematography is just the right kind of intense, humanizing the race in the complementary spirit of the script. Top notch editing by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, who have collaborated with Ron Howard on all of his major works, and the score by the one and only Hans Zimmer complete the film.
Rush is a triumph – proof that great films can still be made with relatively small budgets. It can’t touch Apollo 13 but few films can. I expect it to be an underdog at the Oscars and if the Academy sees the year 2013 as the year of the pleasant surprise (as I do), it might just win the way Argo did.
The Good: The script, the characterization of the two leads, the fact that both characters have their moments of glory and depression, the acting, the pacing, the editing, the sound, the score, the cinematography, and the rivalry.
The Bad: The fact that the supporting roles aren’t given very much attention. Olivia Wilde still looks awesome.
The Ugly: Olivia Wilde’s character enters into an affair with a character we never meet but who is supposed to be a big deal.