By Gary Dowell
An atypical biopic wrapped in slick formula and sleek visuals, Ron Howard’s Rush is the director’s meatiest work since Frost/Nixon (2008). Both films were written by Peter Morgan and share an odd kinship, focusing on a unique pair of polar-opposite rivals who thrive when positioned as frenemies.
Howard and Morgan make the very non-cinematic sport of Formula One quite watchable as they retell the fierce rivalry between two legendary racers during the 1970s: England’s talented but undisciplined playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and monomaniacal and methodical Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, Inglorious Basterds). Hunt is wiling to risk his life to win a race; Lauda takes only calculated risks. The racetrack isn’t big enough — sometimes literally — for these two men and their egos, and their temperaments are so diametrically opposed they can’t help but dislike one another. There’s also a grudging respect between the two that at times is too deeply buried.
While Howard makes enough time for pulse-pounding derring-do on the track to justify the title, he puts primary focus on getting into the heads of his two main characters and their complexities, pulling off the delicate trick of making us love and hate them both in equal measure. We fall for Hunt early on; he’s the swaggering, hard-partying ladies’ man we all want to be and/or be with, a free-spirited driver whom fans embrace and sponsors shy away from. His actions on and off the track, including an impulsive marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) that ends in mutual infidelity and divorce, result in a hard and fast fall from grace.
If there’s an area that falls short, it’s in covering the personal aspects of the two men’s personal lives, especially when it comes to their troubled marriages. Howard and Morgan gloss over the alcohol and sex addictions that split up Hunt and Suzy (ironically, she left him for Richard Burton) and over-simplifies Lauda’s complex but more supportive relationship with his wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). Granted, most of the audience will be drawn by the drama on the track rather than what goes on off it; but still, if the sub-plot is there, shouldn’t it be fully developed? Lauda, by comparison, is far less charismatic and rebels just enough to walk away from the family business in order to race; a man of precision and rigid self-discipline, he only takes chances when there’s a distinct possibility of gain. The one time he breaks this rule, it results in a horrific crash that scars Lauda and sidelines him for several weeks, setting up a tense final two races when he forces himself back to the track to secure the championship. Hunt’s own comeback puts him in contention for as well.
It’s a minor quibble, however, since Hunt and Lauda remain front-and-center and fully formed. Howard gives the movie a low-key, almost indie feel, but doesn’t shy away from using his Hollywood credentials when it comes to production values — an impressive feat given Rush‘s relatively paltry $40 million budget. The cinematography by Arthur Dod Mantle is superb, especially during the rain-soaked finale at the Japan Grand Prix. The racing sequences are beautifully staged and avoid the excess that drive other flicks into the ground within the first hour. Howard also lingers over the gruesome images of dead and injured drives just long enough to remind us how perilous the sport is, and convincing us to join him in pondering why it entices and consumes such disparate men.