Film of the Week: Rush
Thrilling! Vital! Dynamic! Would it be facetious to point out that these are not words you associate with Ron Howard movies? Perhaps, but his new film Rush almost lives up to its title — as long as you’re prepared to forgive the many strictly pedestrian aspects to this motor-racing drama.
Written by Peter Morgan, who collaborated with Howard on the 2008 film of his play Frost/Nixon, Rush is another real-life Duel of Titans story, this time about the rivalry between Formula One champions Niki Lauda and the late James Hunt. The film begins with a glimpse of the 1976 crash on the Nürburgring track which left Lauda severely burned, and then skips back six years; what follows is heavily signposted as heading towards this Date With Destiny.
The characterization is simple verging on cartoonish. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a posh, priapic, hedonistic golden boy—although as he develops, increasingly a brooding one, with issues. Early on, he strides into a hospital to have some wounds tended, announces himself 007-style as “Hunt… James Hunt” and causes several nurses practically to swoon—all except one, who’s soon grappling with him in the shower.
“The closer you are to death,” Hunt declares, “the more alive you feel”—but his arch-rival Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who has the lion’s share of the voiceover narration, doesn’t hold with such romanticism. In one sequence, he’s driving the car of his future wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara); some Italian fans riding in the back can’t believe that he’s really Lauda, because he’s going so slowly. “Right now, with zero incentive for reward, why would I drive fast?” he replies—before giving his passengers what they want. The hilariously caricatural approach to Lauda’s Austrian sobriety hits a peak just before this; alone with Marlene for the first time, Lauda turns off a smoochy ballad on the radio, listens to her car for a moment, then declares: “Your fan belt is loose.”
Rush polarizes its players as yin and yang—dandyish Brit, icy Teuton. The film is practically a fable. It’s the Hare and the Tortoise: both men were hares, of course, but Lauda had a tortoise soul and a matching carapace. Or it’s the Ant and the Grasshopper, Lauda’s sober industriousness allowing him to survive against astonishing odds, whereas Hunt blew it all in a dazzling burst and died of a heart attack at age 45.
At times, it seems as if Rush is less about motor racing than a comedy of national stereotyping. Hemsworth, who resembles Hunt to a tee, plays him with a self-mocking swagger and a voice unnervingly close to Roger Moore. His crew members have names like Bubbles, Doc, and Alexander Lord Hesketh (Christian McBride, giving it his best “What ho!” raffishness). Lauda views all this Brit flippancy with tight-lipped contempt. He’s a single-minded rich boy unafraid to use privilege to get into the sport—although a face-off with his banker father establishes he’s also a bit of a rebel. He’s coolly lucid about what he’s prepared to do for success. In a pointedly significant scene just before his crash, Lauda argues that the rain-soaked track is too dangerous: he’s prepared to take a 20% chance of death, he says, but not one percent more. You might think that the film is an outrageous perpetuation of clichés about Teutonic chill and precision, although one suspects that there’s a little in-jokery involved too—that German actor Brühl is having his own fun at the expense of Austrians.
While Lauda might seem a killjoy, Brühl gives him an earnest nerdy vulnerability, and it’s Hunt who comes off rather worse. He and his friends are spoilt, sexist in a Seventies manner that seems almost picturesquely archaic (Hunt’s girlfriend from the hospital is addressed as “Nursie”), and they’re outrageously nasty to Lauda, dubbing him the “German Rat”—not only on account of his buck teeth.
Of course, these determined rivals (who in reality were friendly enough to share an apartment early on) end up as friends, after a fashion. This exceptionally male film (their wives get only a cursory look-in) is about the love that can only exist between men who’ve risked life and limb together. As Hesketh says: “Men love women, but even more than that, men love cars”—and more than that, he might add, they love other men who love cars. The film is essentially an extended riff on that war movie trope of the German commander declaring: “If not for this war, Britisher, you and I might have been friends.”
Cinephiles might also read Rush as one of those occasional parables of Hollywood’s rivalry with international art cinema, pitting Marvel superhero Hemsworth against the more contained style of Euro star Brühl. Of the two, Brühl easily wins the film, finding real resonance in a rather thankless part, and making something heroic of a pedantic introvert.
The Nürburgring is the big climax, and both men’s turning point. Lauda emerges from his ordeal almost sanctified by survival, and with a new humility. And Hunt, who’s already been humanized by sorrow—after his wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) leaves him for Richard Burton, he makes a rather elegantly barbed press statement—at last comes into his own defending his rival. Did Hunt really punch out a British hack who made ungallant remarks about Lauda’s post-crash appearance? Possibly not—but Morgan makes it a neat coup de théâtre.
The script is schematic, sometimes cringe-inducingly melodramatic (Lauda in hospital trying to squeeze his helmet back on over his wounds). And some directing touches may make you giggle: a close-up of a black spider on the day of the Nurbürgring; “Many Rivers To Cross” playing on vinyl at a moment of crisis. The hovering proximity of death couldn’t be more heavily flagged if we glimpsed a cowled figure with a scythe loitering in the pits.
But as for the promised rush, the racing doesn’t disappoint. DP Anthony Dod Mantle—who proved in 1998’s The Celebration that he wasn’t afraid to put cameras anywhere he damn well pleased—achieves a kind of ubiquity of viewpoint, right down to extreme close-ups of paintwork on asphalt. And Howard’s regular editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill put in more kinetic work for him than they’ve probably ever been required to.
Personally, I’m completely indifferent to motor racing, and if Rush could grip me, it must have something going for it. But it’s not the best motor racing film of the year. That would be the restored and updated Weekend of a Champion, directed by Frank Simon in 1972, in which Roman Polanski shadows Jackie Stewart in Monaco. That film, and its laconic Scottish subject, have a levelheadedness that outdoes even Rush’s Lauda; it’s largely about the pros and cons of doing a risky, technically demanding job in miserable weather. Simon’s doc tells you what racing was like in the Seventies, and (in Polanski’s new coda, added 40 years later) how it’s changed; Howard’s film is about what we imagine racing means. Rush is pure “print the myth” stuff—but since both its heroes really are myths, it gets away with it, with more grace and vigor than you might expect.