Rush is the quintessential Ron Howard film; it has his greatest strengths, and his worst weaknesses. On balance, I recommend the film, because when we’re on the race track, it’s thrilling.
Howard’s first film was Grand Theft Auto, and at the time it was “Opie is directing a movie?” I remember him on the Mike Douglas Show, showing Mike how he used toy cars to block out scenes. I wonder if he still used toys in Rush–probably not, there’s probably a computer program for that now–but Howard’s boyish enthusiasm for racing is on display in Rush. The racing scenes are really fun, giving us a sense of what it’s like to drive a 450-horsepower automobile at speeds close to 200 miles an hour.
On the other hand, Howard is an anti-auteur. None of his films take artistic chances, and settle for the lowest common denominator. He’s the poster boy for a kind of middlebrow, cliche-based cinema. With a weak, exposition-riddled script by Peter Morgan, Rush has many face-palm moments that reek of market testing.
Rush is the story of the rivalry between Formula 1 race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The action mostly takes place in 1976, when Formula 1 was actually a major sport. When I was a kid, I knew who Niki Lauda was, but when I looked at the list of today’s Formula 1 drivers, I didn’t recognize a name. Formula 1 is much more exotic, romantic, and jet-setting than the more popular NASCAR, and in the ’70s, the best drivers were treated like rock stars.
Hunt (a very fine Chris Hemsworth), was a British playboy who was financed by a member of the peerage. He was hedonistic and loved to fuck almost as much as he loved to race. He had an endless string of women–he theorized that women were attracted to his closeness to death. He married a model (Olivia Wilde, looking as beautiful as I’ve ever seen her), whom he eventually lost to Richard Burton.
Lauda, on the other hand, was Teutonically ruthless in his ambition. With rodent-like features, he didn’t care if anyone liked him, and was brutally honest. But he was also a genius with cars, and eschewing his family fortune, he got a bank loan on his own to finance his entry into Formula 1. From their very first race, Hunt and Lauda hated each other, but in the way that was good for both of them–each spurred the other on to greatness.
This is a great story, but Peter Morgan’s script is simple-minded. He assumes, rightly so I expect, that most of the audience doesn’t know Formula 1, but almost every line is exposition. It’s as if the script had footnotes, and he and Howard are looking back at us, ready to stop the film and explain if we didn’t get it. There’s also a lot of oatmeal psychology going on here, with chunks of dialogue about why they risk their lives and so on.
Most of the film documents the 1976 season, when Lauda and Hunt battle for the championship. Though it’s a real story, I don’t want to spoil what happens, but suffice it to say there’s a gruesome accident (Lauda computes that every time he races he has a 20 percent chance of dying). So we get kind of a Seabiscuit story, with one driver coming back from injury. The final race, in a rainstorm in Japan, is pretty exciting, but Howard gives in to his basest instincts by throwing in cliches, such as Wilde watching on TV.
The leads are very good. Hemsworth, with his Bjorn Borg hair, naturally embodies the look of a dilettante playboy, but Daniel Bruhl as Lauda steals the show. He’s the kind of guy who, when asked why he is such an asshole, gives an honest, rational answer. But, deep down, you can see the vulnerability of the man, especially in his relationship with his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara).
The racing scenes are why this movie should be seen. The editing is superb, and there’s a fantastic sense of speed. The true test is that after leaving the theater, I imagined I was driving home on a Grand Prix track. Luckily I did not spin out.
My grade for Rush: B-.