Perhaps the most successful example of what some would derogatorily call a “studio hack,” Ron Howard has been making efficient mainstream entertainments since the early 1980s. The best of these (Apollo 13, Parenthood, Splash, Cocoon) are fun, engaging movies, without any particular style or subtext to elevate them beyond the realm of decent Friday night fodder; films I might happily get sucked into while flipping through cable, but never anything that I would necessarily revisit on purpose, or feel particularly passionate about. So when I say that Rush is by far my favorite film of his career, it’s a qualified statement, though an enthusiastic one nevertheless.
Charting the true story of James Hunt’s and Nikki Lauda’s rivalry during the legendary 1976 Formula 1 Grand Prix, what is most surprising about Rush is how it initially sets up the usual sport movie cliches—charismatic blonde hero vs. unlikeable Euro-villain—only to subvert them for something far more interesting: a genuinely character-based drama. Peter Morgan’s well-structured screenplay gives equal time to both Hunt and Lauda, and engages audience sympathy in unexpected ways, so that by the last act, we’re rooting for both men to succeed, not as heroes, but as complicated, flawed sides of the same coin.
Introduced as an almost caricatured happy-go-lucky playboy, Chris Hemsworth exudes genuine sex appeal and star charisma as British golden boy James Hunt, while slowly revealing the self-destructive side of the character’s easy charm and “live-fast” credo. And yet as good as Hemsworth is, it’s Daniel Bruhl who steals the movie as Nikki Lauda, whose arrogance and apparent misanthropy mask a fierce commitment to excellence and an ever-more admirable lack of interest in the trappings of fame and how others perceive him. The actual story of how the season played out is riveting stuff, allowing the real life twists and turns to consistently trump our more formulaic expectations of how this kind of narrative plays out—especially if, like me, you have no prior knowledge, or interest, in Formula One history.
Most refreshingly, it’s the loose, energetic style of the film-making that makes this stand head and shoulders over Ron Howard’s body of work—embodying both Hunt’s recklessness and Lauda’s precision with startling cinematography (courtesy of the brilliant Arthur Dodd Mantle) and a fast-paced editing style that never lets the momentum flag while always keeping the audience well-orientated within the action. The racing scenes are electrifying, but even more so because of how the film stylistically integrates the two protagonists’ inner lives into the fabric of each race. And Howard effortlessly sets up and maintains a tone that lets the film play out as fantastic entertainment as well as a deeper examination into the ways in which two very different men are spurred to greatness, by their own demons and by each other, within a death-defying profession.
Unfortunately, the film’s two final scenes let the side down a little, repeatedly making sledgehammer overt the very themes that were so successfully layered in for the preceding two hours, and while by no means a deal-breaker, it’s a shame the film-makers didn’t trust the audience a little more, and find a better grace note to end on. But that small caveat aside, Rush is an absolute blast. It’s one of the happiest surprises of the fall season, and has me more excited than ever for the next phase of Ron Howard’s career—perhaps an auteur at long last.