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My 12 for ’13: Rush & Picking Sides

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 3…

Rush is something of a companion piece to Frost/Nixon. Writer Peter Morgan re-teamed with director Ron Howard to offer a definitive take on another contest of wills, documenting the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda across the 1976 Formula One season. An account of a rather famous piece of sporting history, you could accuse Rush of being a bit formulaic, but the key is the skill with which Morgan and Lauda manage to execute that formula.

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Frost/Nixon was, for all the historical weight loaned to it by its two historical leads, essentially a skilfully executed college film. There’s a young party animal who is quite widely liked, but longs to be respected. He is thrown against a crusty older character, bitter about the hand that life has dealt him. There’s an obvious power imbalance in the relationship. Our young hero parties too hard to study, and so it looks like he will never earn the respect he so sorely wants. Then he pulls one hell of an all-nighter, demonstrating to the crusty old authority figure (and the world) that he is just as shrewd and capable as he is charming and witty.

Rush doesn’t follow quite the same formula, but it’s close enough. The two central characters are essentially within the same age group. Their paths to fame and success intersect while both are ascending, rather than while one is descending. However, the broad strokes are similar. James Hunt is the reckless young go-getter who parties hard, but seems to yearn for fame and respect. Niki Lauda is the anti-social jerk who is coldly calculating in his attempts to secure success – as likely to win points through exploitation of administrative rules as by shifting gears.

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Both are exceptionally well-produced films, benefiting from the fact that Ron Howard is a rather wonderful director and Peter Morgan has a beautiful sense of structure and character. Both manage to wring an incredible amount of suspense from events where the outcome is quite widely known. Both are seventies period pieces – in fact, the events of the films unfold only a year apart. The thematic overlap is so obvious that even the music cues echo one another – David Bowie’s hauntingly ironic Fame was featured in the trailer for Frost/Nixon, while it plays over a montage in the movie Rush.

However, where Rush pushes ahead of Frost/Nixon in one rather obvious way. In Frost/Nixon, the conflict is rather lobsided. The audience is clearly intended to root for Frost ahead of Nixon. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon is brilliant, and Morgan’s script is surprisingly nuanced in its portrayal of Nixon, but there’s never a sense that the audience is intended to feel anything but pity for the character in his best moments. Frost might be reckless and giddy and arrogant, but he’s far easier to like – and he’s presented as the man tasked with getting Nixon to answer for the crimes he committed in office.

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In contrast, Rush is a far more balanced film. It trusts the audience to make up their own minds about the protagonists. James Hunt is charming and suave, but he’s also prone to bouts of ego and over-confidence – prone to follow his libido rather than his head. Niki Lauda is arrogant and condescending – but he is also working incredibly hard to secure his dream. He might not compete in the same way that Hunt does, and he might not possess the same sort masculine bravado, but the film makes the case that his more logical and rational approach towards the competition is just as valid.

This strange sense of balance makes Rush feel a bit more nuanced than most sporting stories. It invites the audience to engage more directly, by refusing to provide them with a simple “good guy”/“bad guy” dichotomy. This isn’t the story of a plucky underdog defeating the bloated world champion. Rush makes a point to remind viewers that both Lauda and Hunt rose through the ranks of Formula One at approximately the same time. They don’t necessarily conform to the roles audiences expect.

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In a typical sports movie, Hunt would be the good guy and Lauda would be the bad guy. The final race would be a nail-biting experience as we watch Hunt close on Lauda… hoping against hope that he makes it. If this were a typical sporting movie, Lauda’s decision to pull the car in would be anticlimactic. “What?” we’d ask. “The guy just lets the challenger defeat him like that?” It’s a testament to Morgan’s script that Lauda’s decision to pull off the road is more than simply the plot point that allows Hunt to win; it’s a massively important part of Lauda’s own character arc.

This is great storytelling – it’s a way of inviting the audience to really get involved in the rivalry, and the central conflict, by refusing to provide a handy cheat sheet. Asking the audience to reach their own conclusions about characters and who a given story actually belongs to is a bold move, but it’s a move that can pay off dividends. It shows a strange amount of confidence in the viewer, while making the work of the writer and the director more difficult.

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This isn’t Lauda’s movie, co-starring Hunt; nor is it Hunt’s movie, co-starring Lauda. It’s up to the audience to really decide which of the pair is the hero, and whose outlook is correct. Both characters are given enough space to espouse their viewpoints, and the movie is constructed so that both perspectives are given a fair hearing. Is Hunt’s romanticism or Lauda’s professionalism the best way to approach the sport? I suspect that audience members would be split on the topic.

That’s a wonderful accomplishment.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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