A thoroughly magnificent film on every level, with astonishing performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl; one of the very best films of 2013.
I’m “biast” (con): director Ron Howard has a hit-or-miss track record in the 2000s
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Be not fooled. Rush may look like a Hollywood movie. But it’s not. It’s an independent British production, shot for half (or less) of what the studio take on it would have cost, though you’d never guess it from the gorgeous gloriousness of it up on the big screen. It even snagged an A-list Hollywood director in Ron Howard. Rush is that rarity, a perfect film, thrilling and passionate and just plain marvelous in every way, and it’s sad to say that it’s hard to imagine this movie getting made to this level of wow in Hollywood now. In the 1970s — ironically, the era in which our tale here is set — Hollywood could have pulled this off, before it forgot that exciting action and serious drama and genuinely human stories were not mutually exclusive. Today? Well, Hollywood has been giving us its version of this story for years now, and it’s called Fast & Furious. But whatever rough charms that franchise may have, it exists in a different universe. The gap between those flicks and this film is the same as the one between porn and lovemaking.
I could not possibly care less about Formula 1 racing, and I had never heard of English racer James Hunt or Austrian Niki Lauda before this movie. And yet I was utterly enthralled by this story, based on fact, of the personal and professional rivalry between the two men, centered here around the 1976 racing season. Screenwriter Peter Morgan has written compelling diptychs like this before, in The Queen — Elizabeth II versus Tony Blair — and Frost/Nixon — the chat-show host turned journalist versus the ex U.S. President (the latter also directed, magnificently, by Ron Howard). This is the most complex and intriguing expression yet of the motifs that clearly interest Morgan, because here, Hunt and Lauda have precisely the same goals — to win the championship — yet are almost precisely opposite in how they go about it. They are in concert as well as in competition.
Hunt (Chris Hemsworth: Snow White and the Huntsman, Marvel’s The Avengers) is a rich playboy who brings a new upper-class panache to the sport… or at least he brings champagne and oysters and a posh accent to the pit. But he’s not a dilettante: he may have been, if we’re to believe the movie, one of the most natural drivers ever, which is kinda a little something to make your head explode. (How can we upright monkeys be naturally born to do something as unnatural as drive an overengineered automobile around in circles for hours at speeds that will kill you as soon as look at you? And yet this is a thing.) Lauda (Daniel Brühl: 2 Days in New York, Intruders) is serious, a real Germanic sourpuss, even — “Happiness is the enemy,” he says at one point. He doesn’t see the need to drive fast off the track, he’s a one-woman kind of man, and he’s more about precision than Hunt’s passion… except not quite, either, because it’s hard to imagine him doing what he does if he weren’t passionate, too.
What he does… Oh, one of the most wonderful things about a film like Rush is that you cannot really spoil it, because it’s about the journey, not the destination. If you know the path that the real-life Hunt and Lauda followed, that cannot ruin the experience of this film for you. And if you don’t know, it ruins nothing for me to tell you that mid-season, Lauda is involved in a terrible crash on a German track — during a race that would not have been run if not for the constant dick-measuring Hunt and Lauda are engaging in — that leaves him with horrific burns over much of his face and head… and then he gets back into a Formula 1 car mere weeks later, because he can’t not while Hunt is still out there gaining championship points on him. Lauda practically tortures himself just to get his helmet on over his as-yet unhealed injuries. But it’s worse torture to be sitting on the sidelines.
The most amazing thing about Rush for me is that it takes me from a place where I would say, hearing about these guys elsewhere, “What a couple of assholes,” and makes me understand who they were and why what they did mattered, at least to them. That’s an amazing thing. If movies — if fiction overall — is about making us understand and sympathize with people whom we think we have little in common with, Rush is a triumph in that regard. I could have spent a lot more time with these two men exploring all the things that they have to prove to themselves, each other, and the world. I didn’t expect to be so moved by their contentious relationship. I may have had something in my eye at a few points.
Rush is a triumph in other regards, too. Anyone who thinks Chris Hemsworth is just a pretty face, a hunk in a comic-book costume, will be astonished by how completely captivating he is here. Anyone who has not yet been introduced to the awesome that is Daniel Brühl, a German-Spanish actor who has been hovering on the edges of Hollywood for years and here gets his meatiest opportunity yet to show what he can do, is in for a treat: his is one of the most wonderfully sublime performances of this year (and of many other years as well). His Lauda is a hard guy to like, but he’s totally fascinating anyway. Ron Howard, with the help of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Trance, Dredd), manages to make the 70s look glamorous — no mean feat — and the racing sequences exciting and even unexpectedly gorgeous. And also a little bit geeky! I was reminded, particularly in the scene where a malfunction in Lauda’s car leads to his crash, of Howard’s Apollo 13 (one of my most favorite films ever): engineering, and the moments when it breaks down, is an inevitable partner in human stories nowadays.
Have I said I love this movie? I love this movie. Love love love. Love.