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Non-Review Review: Rush

In many ways, Rush quite resembles the last collaboration between director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan. Both are built around contests between two larger-than-life personalities. One is old-fashioned and conservative, averse to risk and obsessed with victory; the other is young and impetuous, arrogant and self-assured without the experience to back that up. However, while Rush lacks the screen presence of performers Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, it benefits greatly from the fact that it refuses to choose a side.

As much as Frost/Nixon might have offered a slightly more sympathetic-than-usual Nixon, it was clear that the audience was intended to root against the corrupt former president, and champion the ascension of young up-and-comer David Frost. Rush manages a more delicate balance, firmly refusing to favour one protagonist over the other. Both the reckless young go-getter and the safety-conscious number-cruncher are portrayed as sympathetic and well-developed characters.

This makes Rush that rarest of sports movies: the one where the audience is rooting for both contenders.

Not quite to Formula...

Not quite to Formula…

Rush is exhilarating and exciting. Ron Howard is a crowd-pleasing director with an impressive track-record, and he knows how to stage an impressive adrenaline rush. He also knows how to build to suspense as well. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with Formula One probably knows the story beats in Rush off by heart. While one commentator might be exaggerating when he describes it as “the sporting rivalry of the decade”, it’s still a pretty well-known conflict.

So the fact that Howard can generate tension from the most inevitable sequence in the film is a testament to his skill, as tension slowly mounts and builds towards an event that the sports fans in the audience know to be unavoidable, while the less well-informed viewers hope desperately against the increasingly inescapable outcome. It’s something that Howard has a bit of a knack for – see Apollo 13, for example – and something he never gets enough credit for.

He's the champ(agne drinker)!

He’s the champ(agne drinker)!

However, those race sequences – as superb as they are – would be nothing if Peter Morgan couldn’t invest us in this world. He manages to craft two entirely convincing characters from well-known sporting personalities. The script is a bit light on the characterisation of James Hunt, and maybe a bit too tightly focused on Niki Lauda – but it’s a justifiable decision. After all, years of sports films have trained us to root for Hunt. He’s charming and affable, fun and pleasant.

Neither protagonist starts from a clear advantage, but Hunt is presented as something of an underdog for the first half of the film. His sponsorship is non-existent, his cars are substandard, his personal life is under strain. Hunt is very much the sporting hero that movies like this frequently idolise. Indeed, his pseudo-philosophical musings on death and sex and race car driving (“a coffin with carborators”) are more eloquent variations of the type of dialogue we expect in a film like this.

Burning...

Time for reflection…

That’s not to suggest that Hunt is short-changed. He’s still well-developed and still seems like a real character – his flaws more human, his reactions more naturalistic, his excesses well-handled. There’s just a clear sense that Hunt starts with the advantage of being the kind of protagonist that we expect to see in a story like this, and Morgan’s script is smart enough to realise this. “Everyone likes you,” Niki explains to Hunt at one point, “but nobody respects you.”

In contrast, Lauda seems like the character who would serve quite well as the villain of any other sporting movie. There’s not a hint of romanticism or heart about him. He doesn’t “feel” the sport or have any innate connection to it. He buys his way into the big leagues, rather than working his way up. There’s no sense that he has some deep-seated affection for race-car driving, his victories more down to careful preparation and planning than his “gut” or other vague sports-movie-fodder sensations.

Driving each other...

Driving each other…

Discussing his occupation with his team mate, Lauda matter-of-factly explains, “If I had a better talent or could earn more money, I would do something else.” When he finally asks his long-term lover to marry him, it’s hardly flowers and fireworks. “If I am going to do this with anybody,” he explains, “it might as well be you.” (I suspect that the subtitles might make his proclamation seem just a little bit harsher, but the point is clear.)

In any other movie, we’d hate Lauda. In fact, if one chooses to see Rush as “Frost/Nixon, but with race cars!”, Lauda is very clearly cast in the Nixon role. He’s cautious and calculating, willing to claim victories on technicalities as much as skill. However, the beauty of Rush, and a testament to the skill of Morgan as a writer and Brühl as a performer, is that we don’t. There are very obvious ways that Lauda gains our sympathy around the half-way point, but it’s cynical to attribute the character’s charm to that alone.

Night of the Hunt...

Night of the Hunt…

Even before events make it impossible to root against Lauda, the audience gets a sense of the driver as a man with his own internal logic and values and beliefs. The movie doesn’t judge them. Lauda is not a nice guy; he’s not overly personable, he’s not comfortable in crowds; he’s frank to the point of rudeness; but he has his own viewpoint and the movie respects that. It’s something which requires considerable skill, and Howard and Morgan pull it off almost effortlessly.

They create a world that is reasonably familiar, and yet somehow distinct from the rake of racing movies out there. Niki and Hunt are rivals, but they aren’t unprofessional. They refer to one another by their first names, they make casual conversation and share advice that seems to be meant sincerely. A few jabs cross a few lines at certain points, but it’s impressive how civilised this rivalry remains – while still seemed heated and deeply personal. The dynamic less aggressive than in many such sporting films, but seems more complex for that.

He moves fast...

He moves fast…

Indeed, it’s that unique dynamic which lends the film a lot of its appeal. Rush feels different from a lot of other sporting movies, because it’s less interested in getting us to root for “good guys” or “bad guys.” It upsets the dynamics we take for granted in a film like this, creating something fresh. Chris Hemsworth is solid as Hunt, even if he doesn’t pop off the screen quite as you expect he might. While Brühl isn’t as strong as Langella was in Frost/Nixon, he’s still absolutely fascinating to watch.

Rush is a rare treat, and an absolute joy. Rush out to see it.

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8 Responses

  1. I’m curious about this. But, if you ask me, Ron Howard’s been coasting since the nineties. Frost/Nixon was nothing on Apollo 13.

    • Hi Michael!

      I have a huge fondness for Frost/Nixon, if only because it’s the ultimate college movie. It’s really the same as Animal House or any of those – young reckless kid parties away instead of working, but then exam time comes around and he has to study hard in order to beat the crusty old fogey standing in his way. Don’t get me wrong, I love Apollo 13, but there’s something so charming about the set-up of Frost/Nixon that I can’t resist it.

  2. One of my favourite films of 2013 thus far.

  3. This is one of the most anticipated fall movies for me. Rush doesn’t seem like a Ron Howard movie, but he has the prowess to make it a blast.

  4. The way you described the central rivalry in this film made me think that Snyder and co. should look at this film for some inspiration for Superman/Batman.

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