Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Ron Howard
USA and UK, 2013
Fitting, perhaps, that Rush has a script so obsessed with speed that it moves right past telling a fully developed story. There’s a lot in Ron Howard’s latest film that feels different, from the young, international dual leading men, to the overtly stylish cinematography. But even if Howard is using Rush as a moment at which to change things up as a director, Peter Morgan’s script is a detriment. Morgan’s writing is the equivalent of an anxious little boy on Christmas morning, waiting impatiently while the rest of his family open their presents, to the point where he rips through the wrapping paper on his own gifts so quickly that he inadvertently breaks what’s inside.
Based on a true story, Rush focuses on James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Formula One racers who, in the mid-1970s, dominated the headlines with their fierce rivalry on and off the track. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is almost comically stereotypical, someone addicted not just to driving fast, but to the very real possibility that each race, each day, could be his last. Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is the polar opposite: he’s equally dedicated to driving fast on the track, but is cautious and disapproving of Hunt’s party-hard lifestyle. After Lauda wins the world championship in 1975, their tete-a-tete hits a boiling point, culminating in a devastating accident. (This harrowing event is obliquely spoiled before occurring in full, in a pointless in medias res opening. But then, pretty much every in medias res opening these days is a waste.)
Moment to moment, Rush is a moderately entertaining biopic despite being saddled with a problem one could qualify as being the good kind: both Hemsworth and Brühl are commanding figures, so much so that each time the film jumps from either Hunt to Lauda or vice versa, it suffers. Most of the first two acts keeps Hunt and Lauda separate outside of jawing at each other before or after races, for scant minutes. And though Hemsworth is quite good despite not wielding a mighty hammer, Hunt is fairly underwritten in comparison to Lauda, whose painfully taciturn attitude is weirdly charming. It is to Morgan’s credit that neither man is painted as either a full-blown hero or a mustache-twirling villain. But the flip side is that the script seems slightly more besotted with the wrong person. Because he’s being played by one face of the Marvel superhero crew, James Hunt may seem the obvious protagonist, and yet, Lauda—by extension, Brühl’s prickly work—is given more detail and development.
Worse, what little window we get into Hunt as a man outside of his race car is surprisingly rote, to the point of parody. He gets married to a sultry supermodel (Olivia Wilde), but his freewheeling sensibility and apparent alcoholism (apparent because only once are we meant to find Hunt’s drinking troubling, even though he guzzles down plenty of booze throughout) turn her off. Their argument midway through Rush would be more vicious or cutting if Wilde’s character was in more than 15 minutes of the film. (Frankly, the shouting match feels like an expansion of an actual parody, one in which Wilde participated: Weird, the Funny or Die video from a few years ago where Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul played “Weird” Al Yankovic and Wilde played Madonna, the two bickering at the end of a supposedly torrid affair. The parody’s better.) In an early scene, Hunt accepts an award while telling the adoring crowd that he’s a hothead, that he’s only good in a car, and so on, all of which are fine traits for a character to have. It would be, however, preferable for said character to display those traits, not explicate them.
Rush may be most remarkable in its technique, partly because Ron Howard is not a director often associated with a discernible one. His pick for cinematographer, Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle, is the smartest choice he made regarding the production. Though there are woefully too few racing scenes—one montage is chock-full of moments that could easily have been inflated to actual sequences—Mantle livens up the proceedings by simulating, as best as possible, what it must have been like for the real Hunt and Lauda, and many other Formula One racers, to sit inside of these metallic monsters and ride them like the devil. The camera shakes, jiggles, and just about revs along with the engines being fired up. One moment in the climax, set during a torrential rainstorm, is like something from a dream, as the cars enter and exit a haze of fog and mist, barely able to separate the road from the weather. In these moments, Rush is at its best.
Really, Rush is at its best when it doesn’t have to worry too much about pesky things like character development and interaction. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are well-matched opponents on and off the track, and are talented enough to elevate the film. But whenever either man is required to step out of their sponsored suits, Rush stumbles. The fatalistic passion these men shared, even if they followed it in different manners, is altogether strange and captivating. From the whirlwind 1976 the duo had in trying to outrace each other, it’s clear that the story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda is worth telling. The problem with Rush is that it wants to tell both men’s stories, when it should’ve only focused on one.
— Josh Spiegel