dir. Ron Howard
Release Date: Sep 27, 13
To indulge in critical tropes for just a moment, Rush is a true return to form for Ron Howard. After a past decade that’s seen him slum it with fare like The Dilemma and Angels & Demons (to say nothing of The Da Vinci Code, which might be the most banal summer tentpole ever released), here Howard offers up a sports movie that, like any great sports movie, offers both riveting action and a wonderful film around it. Between scenes of riveting action, which will prove effective even if you don’t particularly care about the inner workings of Formula One racing in the year 1976, Howard offers a sly morality play about the dueling philosophies of hedonism and studied caution, as seen through the walking embodiments of both.
Those figures, respectively, were James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), real-life rivals who in 1976 were embroiled in the middle of a fevered race for the F1 World Championship. Their stories require little doctoring, and Howard uses the period setting immaculately. Rush has one foot firmly planted in its ‘70s milieu, the décor of the era for once serving as a celebration of the time instead of a mockery of its excesses. That’s not to say they aren’t present, particularly in the early scenes with Hunt. Hemsworth is an impeccable choice to bring the playboy to life, rife with anxiety even as Hunt devotes himself equally to the pursuits of sex and death defiance. Hunt as played here is the consummate racer, a man who white-knuckles his way through life in all aspects. It makes for a lot of fun with interchangeable women and pit crews, but proves problematic when it comes time for Hunt to settle down with model Suzy Sparkle (Olivia Wilde, good but underused).
By contrast, Lauda takes all of life with the utmost gravity, viewing racing less as an exhilarating conquest than as a series of regimented mathematical equations that can be solved with the proper focus. Brulh’s boyishness is off-putting at first, until Howard (and writer Peter Morgan) begin cutting to the cores of both Hunt and Lauda to reveal the equivalent compulsions for victory. Lauda’s chip on his shoulder weighs him down in all aspects of his life; when he takes Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) as his wife, he worries that “Happiness is the enemy. Suddenly you have something to lose.” He’s the perfect foil for Hunt, and Bruhl is every bit as playful in his way as Hemsworth, muting an evenly rebellious spirit in favor of a stiff countenance.
In the spirit of the story on which it’s based, Rush hums with life throughout nearly every frame. Howard works in a riot of visual styles, moving from claustrophobic closeups to grand moments of destruction, from quiet moments of affection and respect to terrifying hospital tableaux. (One post-crash sequence introduces audiences to the medical practice of lung vacuuming, and it may be the most disturbing thing you see in a theater all year.) Because a quick Wikipedia search could give away most of Rush’s major turns (though I would not recommend this, as there’s considerable pleasure in going in cold), the film’s kinetic energy is depended upon to carry it through. The race sequences occasionally run together, but are directed distinctly enough to remain engaging, and Howard does well parsing them out and always rooting them in character. Even the inevitable shots of loved ones crowding around to witness the big final race in Japan don’t feel as hokey as they should, a testament to the film’s across-the-board success in execution.
Though Rush does overindulge just a bit with a coda that puts too neat a button on the story for the sake of offering real-life footage that would have been better placed in the end credits, it stands as a film that feels radical in its traditionalism. There’s a simplicity to Howard’s approach that’s been grating in some of his recent work but is impeccable here, and it works for a film that elevates the already exceptional into the realm of the mythic. Though Hunt and Lauda were both wholly mortal, all archetypes start as human, and Rush is a riveting reminder of the lengths to which man often must go to reach such rarefied heights.