While occasionally overblown in terms of the melodrama being employed and a tad overlong, Ron Howard’s Rush is a strong sports drama with a pair of exceptional leading performances. In the end, it’s a pretty typical effort from Howard, but it’s probably his strongest and least problematic mainstream effort since Apollo 13 (unless you’re counting the underrated Frost/Nixon as a major blockbuster). It’s clichéd, somewhat pedestrian racing narrative never grates, though. Much like Howard’s best work, it has an exceptional eye for details and well crafted characters without doing absolutely more than it has to in the plot department.
Working from a script courtesy of Frost/Nixon collaborator Peter Morgan, Howard looks back on a somewhat fictionalized retelling of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, a duo who would bring out the best and worst in each other on the track and off. Brit Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) has worked through the minor circuits and bided his time and temperament to try and land a big time contract with a major team. Austrian Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) has managed to find funding so large he could essentially buy his way into the majors. The hard partying, instinctual, and more emotion driven Hunt constantly gets on the nerves of the more analytical, reserved, and technologically savvy Lauda, but the two men really understand each other better than everyone else around them does. They never really become close friends, but the mutual, sometimes begrudging respect is more than enough.
It wouldn’t necessarily be as much fun to just recap the entire famous course of one-upmanship via books, YouTube, magazines, and WikiPedia, so the frequent lapses into pure cinematic fabrication are really more Morgan’s fault than Howard’s, with the director constantly having to overcompensate visually for a script that feels a tad overwritten. Subplots involving the women in Hunt and Lauda’s lives (played by Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively) go absolutely nowehere, but not in a particularly sexist way. They’re merely there to add to the overwrought nature of the sports narrative; the underlining of exactly how much these men are driven by their profession. It’s not so much that the actresses in the film are wasted, but that the exact same information could have been delivered in sequences with Hunt and Lauda simply talk to each other.
While that’s a bit of a demerit against Morgan’s work, one has to remember that Formula One is a sport that still thrives on the dramatic, with commentators here given to such lush flourishes of hyperbole like “blood red Ferrari,” “searing 800 degree inferno,” and “ignominious defeat.” That’s the nature of the sport and what draws fans into the action in the first place. No one ever watches Formula One for the 80 out of every 100 laps where nothing happens. They watch for the 20 where there are crashes, chases for the lead, and inclement weather that’s not just drizzling, but positively tempestuous.
These are the details that Howard does best and elevates his work here. The film looks so close to authentic that the image almost reeks of motor oil, cigarette smoke, and cheap cologne. Much like a writer who feels at home with the familiar and not one to shy away from going a bit bigger than some other filmmakers might be inclined to do, Howard balances the grit, humanity, and bombast quite deftly here, and given the larger than life personalities at the heart of the story, none of it ever feels forced. There’s an organic kind of quality that at worst feels quaint at worst (the women, a final speech between the rivals towards the end) and satisfying at best (how the film handles a real life twist to Lauda’s career the culminates in a scene that could have been potentially eye rolling in lesser hands). Oh, and the racing sequences are spectacular, but for a major studio production like this to falter in that department would have led to this being a stunning disaster for that alone.
But as adequate as Howard is as a director, he would be running for a long time on fumes without the help of his two leading men. Hemsworth has never been better than he is here as Hunt. It’s probably because he’s never actually been given a part this good before, but his channelling of Oliver Reed and Rob Lowe simultaneously works for the cocky careerist. Bruhl (who between this and The Fifth Estate later this fall looks to corner the market on excellent performances in passable true life semi-biopics) looks almost unrecognizable as the proper and upstanding Lauda. Bruhl’s Lauda is a man who never needs to say very much because one look at him should convey that he means business. He has no time for fools or even friendly jocularity, making Hunt the perfect foil. As the movie progresses, Bruhl’s Lauda has to be visibly shaken by events in his life, and he can’t openly express those emotions properly. That’s when Hemsworth and Bruhl’s chemistry as friendly rivals truly solidifies, even if it does lead to the film technically ending about 10 minutes before it actually does.
Howard has never really been a director with a lot of heart. That’s not to say that the man doesn’t know how to make a crowd pleaser or even an entertaining yarn, but all of the emotions in his films have been aped from the filmmakers that can perform better than he can, be it Spielberg, Philip Kaufman, or even Gus Van Sant. Again, he’s not a bad filmmaker, but he’s not terribly original. Thanks to the work of Hemsworth and Bruhl and a story based on a classic clash of egos, it adds a human element that a lot of Howard’s biggest successes (including the insultingly pandering A Beautiful Mind and the dreadful product that was The Grinch) tend to overlook. He often tries too hard, but here he’s trying just hard enough, placing Rush firmly into the category of his best work.