GREAT FILMS: Rush (2013)

Rush (USA, 2013)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara

Ron Howard's directorial career is one of many huge successes interspersed with several massive failures. It's hard to comprehend how the steady hand behind the likes of Splash, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind could also have made films as staggeringly bad as Far and Away, The Da Vinci Code and The Dilemma. Fortunately for us, Rush represents an emphatic return to form, being a really great sports drama and one of the most engrossing films of the year.
When I reviewed Fire in Babylon two years ago, I mentioned that sports films are all too often constructed in a way which shuts out the casual viewer, thereby denying them the mainstream appeal that their subjects deserve. Both documentaries and dramas about sports are often waylaid by "a combination of eccentric jargon, cliquey culture, off-putting aggression and economy with the truth".
The natural comparison point for Rush is another 2011 documentary: Senna, Asif Kapadia's brilliant look at the life of Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton , and the events leading up to his tragic death in 1994. Whatever the differences in production quality or character emphasis (and there are some similarities), there is a fundamental difference in directorial approach.
While Kapadia is a documentarian, Howard is at heart a crowd-pleasing populist. Both film-makers want their film to appeal to the widest possible audience, but Howard consciously pursues this in his storytelling while Kapadia lets the material speak for itself. There's a clear desire on Howard's part for the film to appeal to American audiences, whose interest in NASCAR and other motor sport have often eclipsed Formula 1. This is in itself no bad thing: populism doesn't always have to mean scrimping on detail or accuracy, and Howard's previous collaboration with Peter Morgan (Frost/ Nixon) was both weighty and accessible.
That being said, the opening act of Rush is painted in very broad strokes. While the rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost emerged very naturaally, the relationship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is intentionally set up as one of chalk and cheese. Hunt is the reckless, philandering playboy who lives as fast as he drives, while Lauda is the clinical, almost humourless technician who prefers to win arguments with numbers rather than fists. The script does occasionally drift into pantomime territory, but both Chris Helmsworth and Daniel Bruhl keep the humanity of their characters at the forefront.
This broad, cartoony tone has one very pleasant side effect: it captures the brash, flamboyant feel of the 1970s. The tagline for Rush is "when sex was safe and driving was dangerous", and Howard successfully takes us into a world which is built upon all manner of pleasure and indulgence. There is a free spirit to the drivers and their managers which has largely disappeared in our media-savvy world, and Howard captures the period details very well, particularly the advertising and the fashions. Hunt's sexual displays can feel very Carry On at times, but again there is enough detail and effort on show to balance it out.
There is, in addition to this, a slight conflict in the early stages of Morgan's script. Morgan has said in interviews that he was originally interested in making a film solely about Lauda: it was not initially conceived as an out-and-out two-hander like Frost/Nixon. It was only as he conducted more research that he came to understand the duality of these characters and how much screen time Hunt needed or deserved. This conflict is apparent in the opening section: Lauda is portrayed as the new, different force coming in, and his initial scenes are more developed while Hunt's are like a montage of playboy thrills and spills.
Having started out somewhat imbalanced (albeit entertainingly), the film really hits its stride when the racing starts, and the differences between the characters gain tension with the dangers present in racing. Howard pulls no punches with either the make-up or the stunts, using the former to great effect to show how unstable and fragile 1970s F1 cars really were. There are any number of suitably wince-inducing moments, whether it's the driver in the burnt-out car with no head, or another driver being lifted from the Nürburgring with a bent and shattered leg.
The racing scenes in Rush are incredibly intense, being every bit as thrilling as the real-life footage presented in Senna. The film benefits enormously from Anthony Dod Mantle, best known for his work with Danny Boyle. His gripping cinematography presents the race from many unusual angles, all of which make the races feel cinematically unique and unpredictable. The camera takes us inside the bolt guns to change the tires, inside the pistons as the engines fire, and shakes wildly to recreate the responsiveness (or lack thereof) of the suspension.
Having started slowly and then begun to go up in the gears, the film then fully opens the taps with Lauda's accident. Lauda served as a consultant on the film, and even he expressed surprise at how visceral the finished scenes feel. Every aspect of this sequence - the fire, Bruhl's make-up, the scenes of him in hospital - drive home the pain and anguish of the character. It's a truly heart-stopping sequence, leaving us at once heartbroken and horrified.
From then on, Rush stops being just a very well-made racing film and starts to bring forth on all the things the racing represents. Senna definitely started this process earlier, using early footage of Senna to foreshadow events and bring out ideas about death, God and destiny. But Howard still does a very fine job, and Morgan resists taking the Frost/Nixon route of fabricating scenes to move the characters closer.
At the heart of Rush is a relationship built upon jealousy and obsession. Both Hunt and Lauda are driven to compete, but this drive, this rush, manifests itself in different ways. The two men both admire and hate each other: each wishes the other would behave like them, but are also grateful for the challenge their differences present. Hunt's speech at the end about numbers taking the fun out of driving reflect Senna's comments about his final car, which had computer-controlled suspension: both men felt the technology and maths were a fatal distraction from what should be a pure, thrilling experience.
The film also looks at the loneliness of driving, and the way in which their profession leaves both men somewhat empty. Lauda calls happiness an enemy, saying that allowing himself to be satisfied would destroy his competitive spirit; even after he has married the love of his life, he cannot bring himself to be happy. As for Hunt, he is constantly searching for the next thrill, whether it be a race, a woman, a drink or punching a journalist. He has no ambitions beyond each individual chance to prove his worth, and once victory comes, he goes in search of the next one.
Rush is a really great sports drama which deserves to get a wide audience. Howard directs at the top of his game, while Hemsworth and especially Bruhl provide powerhouse performances in amongst the camerawork and pyrotechnics. Ultimately it is brasher and more mainstream than many would like, and Senna remains the better work in terms of substance. But this is still a really gripping, thrilling piece of work, and may be Howard's best since Apollo 13. 


NEXT REVIEW: Twelve Monkeys (1995)