October 17, 2013

Rush: A Wild Ride Through Racing History

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True to its title, Rush is exhilarating. It’s one of the best films Ron Howard has made, in a career that includes hits like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, along with  misses like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Written by Peter Morgan and starring an excellent pair who we know from the Marvel universe and the Quentin Tarantino universe, this is a fine-tuned automobile with class A talent behind the wheel.

The movie chronicles the 1976 Formula One racing season, in which the main attraction was the showdown between Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Nikki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). While the two were firm rivals on the racetrack, they developed an unlikely depth of respect for one another, as each pushed the other to strive further during races. When Hunt was down on his luck to find a sponsor after the 1975 Formula One season, it was Lauda’s victory that motivated him. After Lauda suffered a life-threatening setback when his car crashed at the German Grand Prix of the following year, it was Hunt’s winning streak, viewed from hospital, which convinced him to put the helmet back on.

Hunt has an infamous reputation off the track for being a womanizer and a hard-drinking boozer, as much in love with the playboy aspect of racing as the profession itself. Lauda, by contrast, is academic and focused, and has no interest in the parties or the women. He sees racing as a highly calculated discipline, and is able to disassemble a car and put it back together to give himself a better time. As played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively, the two are a rivalry made in heaven. Hemsworth, the title character in Thor, gives Hunt a swagger that is both abrasive and irresistible, while Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) is thoroughly entertaining as a relentlessly driven mathematician of a driver.

I had a sour taste in my mouth for race car movies due to the likes of Talladega Nights; after his recent misfires, I was also wary of the work of Ron Howard. Despite brilliant feats of filmmaking like Cinderella Man, I was worried he could veer off into schlock, which would not be too absurd a possibility, considering his last film was The Dilemma. Of course, Howard is a versatile director who has scored his biggest achievements, in my mind, with his historical dramas about interesting and often extraordinary situations. In Apollo 13, he faithfully recounted the story of three astronauts adrift in space after a malfunction on their shuttle sent them off course. In Frost/Nixon, he drew a tense thriller from David Frost’s heavily loaded interviews of Richard Nixon, which took place after Nixon abdicated the presidency. And in his best film, he exposed the deep humanity of a man fighting for his family amidst the Great Depression.

Here, Howard has a chance to dramatize a very interesting competition under the circumstances of a very dangerous — and potentially deadly — sport. One of Rush’s strengths is to remind us that the threat of death lurks every time a driver gets on the track. As Lauda says, “I accept that every time I get in a car there is 20% chance I might die, but no more.” This is a driver who sees racing in terms of odds and statistics. Hunt, on the other hand, is helpfully opposite in his view of racing as a sport which affords one the opportunity to “laugh in the face of death.” For him, the appeal of racing is just how close to the edge of life it takes him.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Rush lean and mean from its opening, and featuring bold, enthralling cinematography courtesy of Anthony Dodd Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). The race scenes are addictive in their editing and sound design, from the vroom of the engines to the squeal of tires on wet pavement, thanks to editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill and the film’s crack sound team. But it’s Peter Morgan’s tight script which holds everything together and balances the human drama of Hunt and Lauda with the thrills of Formula One. Howard adheres to this juxtaposition wisely, and the resulting film is a compelling mix of heart  and excitement.