Release: Thursday, September 26, 2013
2013 finds Ron Howard operating well within his comfort zone again, returning to construct the definitive racing film.
A gripping, polished and thoughtfully-crafted drama piece, Rush delves into one remarkable season of racing which would ultimately define the careers of two top performers in Formula 1.
Howard and comedy, it would seem, mix about as well as bald race tires on wet pavement (in case that’s not clear, not well). The unnecessary detour we took in 2011 with The Dilemma serves as a painful reminder that sometimes straying from the course carries more risk than reward. But perhaps it’s the fact that the man is coming out of the shadows of that terribly confusing, un-funny film that makes this particular movie such a euphoric experience.
Rush compares the passions of two fierce competitors in 1970s Formula 1 racing. The film is equally an action/drama as much as it is a cleverly constructed biopic; red-headed Richie Cunningham devotes as much time and material to the British playboy James Hunt (here portrayed by a thoroughly entertaining Chris Hemsworth) and the starkly more disciplined and straight-edged Austrian, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), as he does to the critical developments on the racetracks.
I suppose seeing the film on an RPX screen helped bring the story to larger-than-life proportions. But that’s more of the icing on the cake, really. Peter Morgan, who also wrote Frost/Nixon and The Queen, is responsible for us feeling as though we have injected ourselves with extra adrenaline; that we’re trapped inside the claustrophobic cockpits of these exquisite automobiles. The only thing missing is the smell of burning motor oil, the cigars and the expensive perfumes and colognes. Morgan’s brilliant writing provides the sexy cast fully-realized characters that Hemsworth and Brühl simply run away with. (Or drive away with, if that metaphor suits you better.)
In the 70s, perhaps no rivalry was as bitter and as intense as the one dividing Hunt and Lauda, and Howard was keen to prioritize this aspect over the many other intricate details that comprise this project. One of the more compelling reasons to see this film is the simple fact that Howard does his damn research. Time and again he’s proven himself a director who pays attention to the details, no matter how technical the subject matter. In this case anyway, the material is as complicated as anything he’s ever dealt with (the adventures of Jim Lovell and company being a close second), yet you feel completely immersed in a world that is a near perfect-reflection of reality. Those who have come to love Howard’s style also trust in his earnestness.
Arguably the most rewarding aspect of Rush is the replication of the drivers’ less-than-pleasant relationship. Howard realizes its critical we know the personalities before we know their abilities; that we know what motivates each for taking the actions that they take. Consequently, when such decisions are made and certain events transpire, we care that much more for the people involved.
James Hunt bumps into the dark-haired, brusque Austrian racer one afternoon during a Formula 3 event — a lower-level form of the top-end race car circuit — and immediately there is tension between them. From the beginning its clear that Lauda is a technical perfectionist while Hunt enjoys bearing the fruits of his labor. . . and his good looks, of course. He’s the party animal; the one to be spraying a huge bottle of champagne after one race and puking minutes before the next. He’s the one to be bedding women like Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller. However, it is Lauda who is consistently described as “a genius in the car,” and given that Lauda’s generally unlikable persona made it more difficult (more like next to impossible) for him to get picked up by a team on his own merits, he has to struggle much harder to get in. Fortunately his efforts eventually pay off and in fact Ferrari signs him to their team.
Hunt’s lack of focus on (read: important) matters off the track results in his lack of sponsorship for the upcoming 1976 season, and though he jokes that all he needs on his car is something about cigarettes and condoms, its clear Hunt knows he’s in trouble.
Howard’s films typically are imbued with historically accuracy, and this one’s certainly no different. He accounts for every last detail surrounding racing as not only a sport, but a culture. A way of survival, even. From Lauda’s mechanical crew looking more than irritated having spent an entire night completely rebuilding his car to his exact specifications, to Hunt failing to attract new sponsors; from the quick, tight shots of the driver inside the car pushing down the pedals and switching gears, to slow-motion shots of the tires spinning in heavy downpours, Rush is almost poetic in its visual beauty and technical prowess. It could be Howard’s most immaculate project yet.
No moment in the film might exemplify the reality of driving for a living better than what happens to Niki Lauda one fateful day in Germany. Infamously referred to as ‘The Graveyard,’ the incredibly harrowing Nürburgring track is responsible for many, many serious accidents, a good number of which have been fatal. On the day of the race, the weather was anything but ideal. Heavy rains and low visibility prompted the incredibly intelligent Lauda to call a meeting in an attempt to boycott the race. Citing unreasonably high danger levels, Lauda was virtually alone in his position, as Hunt (at least in the film) points out that this would likely guarantee his (Lauda’s) win for the season, since cutting out the German Grand Prix would provide everyone else one less racing opportunity to catch up to him in the total points standings.
Later that day, Lauda’s car would be converted into a raging fireball after he overcorrects through a turn which inadvertently pierces the car’s fuel cell. The driver sat in a blistering inferno of over 800 degrees for about sixty seconds, causing irreparable damage to his face and lungs. He would spend roughly a month in the hospital recovering from horrific burns. Howard handles this pivotal moment with all the grace one could ever expect from him, and its really quite the gut-check time for both the other racers and us, the audience. It’s not an easy scene to witness.
This is a pivotal moment not only for the real-life champion, but relative to the film as well. Even if it’s a two-hour affair, this film simply flies by in no time at all. The film following the accident becomes twice as compelling, given the turn-around time for Lauda returning to the sport. Within four weeks, he’s back in the car, much to everyone’s amazement — particularly James Hunt’s. The film begs the question, what exactly separates the will to win versus the will to survive? In sports/careers in which the danger levels are directly proportional to the risks those individuals take, often the two overlap. Winning often means outlasting death. Losing means you played it too safe, or simply weren’t good/fast enough. And with Howard’s visionary style of directing, this is only part of the picture.
More than anything, Rush honors the legends that are Niki Lauda and James Hunt by shedding light on both their personal and professional lives (it doesn’t hurt either that the actors portraying them are strikingly similar in appearance) while never forcing the drama that came with the territory. Indeed, this develops as naturally as Howard’s confidence behind the camera has over a protracted career.
Formula 1 racing certainly approaches the top of the ladder in terms of the danger and the intrigue. Having experienced the United States Grand Prix in 2003 in Indianapolis, I can vouch for both, though fortunately me and my friends did not bear witness to anything near as dramatic as what happened to the formidable Austrian. It’s an interesting thought to entertain to consider what this film might have been like in the hands of anyone else other than those of Hollywood’s favorite ginger-haired director.
Recommendation: Race fans and Ron Howard devotees unite! Rush delivers upon almost everything promised by its enticing trailers, though it lacks a bit in some areas regarding the women who were behind the great drivers. Neither Wilde nor Alexandra Maria Lara (who plays Lauda’s wife, Marlene) are given much time to develop as characters at all. All the same, this is a wholly engaging experience that will have you whiteknuckled for most of its duration, and if you enjoy learning about the subject matter as much as you do witnessing it, this might just be the perfect movie for you. On that note, I fully expect this film to do far better in Europe than in America since the market for Formula 1 is nowhere near as demanding in the States unfortunately.
Running Time: 123 mins.
Quoted: “Don’t go to men who are willing to kill themselves driving in circles looking for normality.”
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