Howard film is solid; main characters are equally flawed

Published on Thursday, 3 October 2013 21:22 - Written by By Stewart Smith

Formula 1 drivers are insane.

If Ron Howard’s “Rush” left me with only one impression, it’s that the drivers who race at ridiculous speeds inside what are effectively bombs on wheels are just a little bit out of their minds.

Thankfully, that’s not the only impression it made as it’s a good film, and probably one of the best Howard has made. Even if you’re not a fan or very knowledgeable of F1 racing, it’s still more than accessible while still retaining at least the feeling of authenticity.

Set in the 1970s and based on actual events, “Rush” follows racers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) from the start of their racing careers until both became world champions and the rivalry that pushed them to limits they likely never imagined.

Hunt is reckless. He races on instinct and is propelled by the pure thrill of being behind the wheel, accepting that each race could be his last. When he’s not on the track, he’s out partying, simultaneously celebrating coming out alive and living it up as he might not survive another race.

Lauda is the precise opposite. He approaches racing like it’s a science, tuning his car to limits beyond even what his mechanics know how to do and focusing on little else beyond preparing for the next race. Where Hunt is affable and the life of the party, Lauda is often callous and insensitive, unable to see (or perhaps even care) that everyone thinks he’s an arrogant jerk.

Their rivalry is more or less immediate. From the moment they encounter each other on the track of a bush league Formula 3 race, Hunt and Lauda are determined to one-up the other. Both are immensely talented drivers, yet the only thing that seems to matter is for one to beat the other. It’s not so much about being a world champion as it is about proving they’re simply the better driver.

What’s perhaps most interesting about how Howard handles the story of “Rush” is that he doesn’t fall into the trap of arbitrarily making either Lauda or Hunt a villain. Both are presented as equally obsessed and equally flawed. It’s refreshing, quite honestly, to see a story this balanced and propelled simply by the drama inherent in the story without resorting to lazy tactics like “needing” a villain.

That choice is what helps keep the film so solid, too, as the drama is the main focus here. This at times feels more like Lauda’s story than Hunt’s (it’s his narration that opens and closes the film), but both characters have their moments to be front-and-center and both Hemsworth and Brühl are excellent.

As written, the role of Hunt needs someone immediately magnetic and compelling, able to make you buy into the hype he creates around himself while also not loathing the guy for being a self-destructive playboy who only cares about winning. Hemsworth does just that and it could very well be a star-making turn for the guy. He certainly proves he’s got the magnetism and depth to become a pretty big name with his work here, and not just be handsome on-screen.

Brühl, meanwhile, has a somewhat more thankless role as Lauda is the opposite of flash and roguish charm. Lauda is introverted, practical and, frankly, just a little bit boring. And yet Brühl still manages to find the emotional core of who Lauda is and what drives him to make him compelling.

It also must be said that this is a very accessible movie from the racing standpoint. I don’t know a thing about F1 racing and yet I never once felt lost or like something was going over my head. I have no real idea how dedicated gearheads will find the car stuff, but I found it very engaging despite no real working knowledge of the sport.

The racing that is shown is usually in montage form, although Howard shoots it in a suitably thrilling manner. He’s no John Frankenheimer, but he acquits himself with scenes on the racetrack far better than I’d expected, given that he’s never really tackled material like this before. Howard’s never been what I would consider a director with any kind of defining “style” to his films, but he adopts a visual palette that, while contemporary in its feel, never really feels like it’s just ripping off some other director’s choices.

“Rush” is a solid film on all fronts. It knows how to ratchet up the drama without being overbearing or disingenuous. The racing is exciting and stylish without being bombastic. It successfully paints an even portrait of these obsessed drivers and the extraordinary rivalry that shaped their lives.

Grade: B+