Rush (2013, Ron Howard)

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Before I devotedly ran this blog, it’s unlikely I would in a million years have found myself in a theater to see a movie about Formula One drivers, much less one by a director for whom I’ve never felt much affection. Yet the universal praise and the very ’70s haziness of the trailer got me into a seat, and it was a good experience. This goes back to one of the classic dictums of narrative filmmaking, often neglected now: Howard’s job is to make someone who doesn’t know even a little bit about auto racing, or have any interest in it, care about his story. He and screenwriter Peter Morgan, with whom he collaborated on the flawed but worthwhile Frost/Nixon, succeed by both emphasizing humans over cars and by carefully making their subject matter seem important to a larger world while not leaving behind the intense tête-à-tête of their two protagonists.

The subject of Rush is the apparently famous (I had no idea) rivalry between F1 drivers Niki Lauda, a stubborn Austrian perfectionist, and the British hard-partier James Hunt, a drama that played out in extraordinary fashion during the 1976 season, with one twist and turn after another: Hunt was disqualified due to his car’s size at one point, only to have his victory later reinstated; other madnesses with Hunt’s rule-breaking both benign and serious ensued, enough that many of them don’t even make the film. The most famous incident — and the crux of the narrative — is the fiery crash suffered by Lauda in his Ferrari in August 1976, which left him nearly burned alive and permently disfigured, only to return to racing mere weeks later to ensure that Hunt wouldn’t rob him of the world championship. Morgan’s primary interest here, besides some veiled and not at all preachy tut-tutting about the absolute insanity of the sport itself (a mortification I happen to share), is the communication differences between these two men from two different cultures, but one who goes in expecting to be treated to constant revving engines and racecar pyrotechnics will come away satisfied.

Indeed, the film is so satisfying that it’s a bit deceptive, though its absence of U.S. box office success is sort of bewildering for the same reason. You have to be really careful not to fall into a certain trap with a workmanlike (not meant as a criticism) but beautifully restrained movie like this, which is to praise it to no end for what it doesn’t do: no stupid overreaching comic relief, no head-slappingly obvious “period” detail, no sentimental dialogue about what it means to be in a race, mannn, and indeed very little dialogue that consists of characters explaining their emotions, a trap even Frost/Nixon fell into several times. It’s really easy to get flummoxed at seeing a reasonably intelligent studio movie at a multiplex in 2013, but we’ll try to look beyond that.

For someone who’s not at all attuned to the nuance of sports stories or capable of being easily emotionally affected by them, we make our own reference points, and certainly the storytelling of Howard and Morgan is good enough to conquer any such prejudices. Oddly, though, there’s something reassuring about the film’s unbroken commitment and focus, which represents a cinematic leap ahead for Howard because it puts us inside its characters’ heads enough that their passion for racing, for being “close to death,” becomes full-bodied and palpable even if it isn’t necessarily the central idea of the film, the script, or the moviegoing audience’s reasons for bothering. To put it another way: its story and the way that story is told — with the intoxicating sense of speed, the drab color and loudness, the pounding of pressure, intensity and hedonism — becomes indistinguishable from its characterization. That’s a coup, and most cinemagoers will likely note that Niki Lauda’s representation here as written by Morgan is suggestive that he’s a stand-in for the traditionally control freakish film director, whose attention to detail alienates him from everyone. (Probably not Howard. Or maybe?)

This all reminds me a bit of the Oscar-winning Olympics drama Chariots of Fire, a film I was neutral about back when I reviewed it here last year but that I must admit has stayed in the back of my mind ever since. That’s not because I think I was wrong about it — its story doesn’t successfully emphasize its relevance, and its characters seem like artless, scripted creations approached all too casually — but because I appreciated its subtleties, its deep seriousness about something that for an outsider seems fairly inconsequential. I hope I’m not sinking into some rabbit hole of painting everything European with the same brush here, but in much the same way that I found the quiet, passionate craft of Chariots comforting, I find this film’s unflinching understanding of its world more absorbing than I would a dry documentary about the exact same subject.

Well, let’s not beat around the bush: I’m saying that Rush is, well, a lot less boring, which brings me to this: where did Ron Howard, historically such an affably dull filmmaker, get this sudden burst of adrenaline? Good on him just as much as on Morgan for devoting himself fully to making this world accurate, believable and fully absorbing. I have a soft spot for Parenthood, Splash and Night Shift, but this otherwise is probably Howard’s most impressive movie to date, even if not necessarily his best. He gets such a palpable and breathtaking sense of speed and excitement out of this, and with the aid of editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill and cinematographer Anthony Mantle, he makes this into a film that’s vital and frenetic, neither an adjective readily afforded to rote productions like Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man. As for the casting, beyond the incredible physical resemblance of Daniel Brühl to Lauda — before and after his burn injuries — and (to a lesser extent) that of Chris Hemsworth to Hunt, both leads are natural and staggeringly dedicated to the men they’re portraying. It’s at times hard to separate the actor from the racer, on either count, with each of them providing a full range of intensities about their work, their personal lives and one another. These are truly great performances that seem almost invisible; it doesn’t really occur to you until later how fully Hemsworth and Brühl each become a complete portrait of a real man, and you don’t have to know much about said real men to be conscious that their embodiment of them at their best and worst feels not just convincing but effortlessly true.

The actors’ jobs are made a little easier, of course, by Morgan’s script, which I think is one they’ll probably teach in screenwriting classes if those are a thing — it develops its complex characters with no shortcuts, but also no overexplaining or schmaltz. Neither is fundamentally “good” or “bad,” reckless or wise, they both come across as full-dimensional humans. I think the depth of the film’s understated analysis of their rivalry, their individual dreams and problems and its unflinching, sometimes quite pointed glimpses at the appalling dangers of their chosen career overcome any of the touches of formula or macho showboating that you naturally expect (and get, in limited quantities). More than Frost/Nixon, this is a brilliant example of how to explore a rich and deep antagonism that’s infused with respect while neither letting one character take a back seat to the other or demonizing or lionizing one of them — and making their relationship believable, real. If you generally like sports movies or have some interest in the subject matter already, I have to imagine this would become an obvious favorite; if even I came away interested and wanting to read about the real life stories of these two men, surely someone who, you know, cares will have a greater time yet.

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