“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Mark Twain was onto something when he made that statement, and Rush is further evidence to support it. Based on a true story so incredible and bizarre that a novelist couldn’t dream it up, Ron Howard’s latest film is entertaining, thrilling and at times even moving.
Rush is based on one of the greatest sporting rivalries ever, that between two Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The English Hunt was a handsome but hotheaded playboy, as good with women as he was with cars. On the other hand, Lauda, an Austrian, was a fastidious and surgical driver, who sought to replicate his attention to detail on the racetrack with his life too. The story, set in the glamorous world of the ’70s, depicts how this merciless competition resulted in the infamous crash that nearly killed Lauda and how he came back after that to stake his claim on the title.
I went into Rush knowing next to nothing about the events it’s based on, and I am glad for that. I didn’t know what had actually happened in the 1976 F1 season, not even who won. Nor did I know the eventual fate of either driver. That, I think, was a huge reason why the film had such power over me. This review will not have any spoilers for the same reason. By the end I was completely invested in this tale of two egomaniacs and the climax left me drained, but satisfied.
Howard did a great job with the casting here. The film would have started stillborn had the leads not been such polar opposites or as charismatic. That the two share palpable chemistry only seals things with a bow on top. I have been in the pro-Chris Hemsworth camp for a while now, but even I admit he hasn’t found a project that could sufficiently challenge or showcase him. Rush is that project. His character is — to put it politely — not a nice person, the kind of smug douchebag one just wants to see the downfall of. Hemsworth not only essays the smarminess to perfection, but adds a solid layer of depth to Hunt that makes us see the goodness in him (however small). By the end, I was rooting for him and I don’t even feel bad about it.
This should be a breakout role for Daniel Bruhl too, who was so good in Inglourious Basterds a few years ago. I found it amusing that Bruhl, who has the looks to play a Greek god (and has done so in several other movies), plays someone here who is mediocre-looking at best. He inhabits his role so effortlessly that I didn’t even notice the fake teeth he’s sporting throughout the movie. Bruhl’s character is mousy, fussy and not exactly affable. He never compromises on these characteristics but surrounds them with a positive light that actually made me feel sympathetic to Lauda. He has enough screen presence to hold his own in front of Hemsworth, who is simply magnetic.
Olivia Wilde is billed third in the credits but it’s hard to see why. She is given a thankless role, one that is as perfunctory as it is underwritten. The only praise I can give her is that she doesn’t bomb the limited material she does have to work with. The other female lead, Alexandria Maria Lara, may have three first names but that doesn’t mean she is given as much to portray. The script primarily requires her to look pensive and, yes, she pulls that off.
Talking about the script, Peter Morgan’s work is not as impeccable as other facets of the movie. The British playwright, who previously collaborated with Howard on the very good Frost/Nixon, serves up a screenplay that is at its best only when it doesn’t get in the way of reality. The evolution of Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry, the way they grow to occupy polarizing positions or the chronicling of the F1 season — Rush depicts these very well. However, when it tries to become a “movie”, the labored construction is all too evident. For example, one particular red herring before The Big Crash is groan-inducing. The female characters, as described above, are woefully undercooked and some of the dialogues are laughable. That said, by the end the story does make its kindergarten-level theme of the benefits of rivalry clear effectively.
After watching Rush, I looked up its budget and was shocked at the figure: $38 million. The film seems like it cost twice that much, and I guess kudos are due to the people involved for such a slick production. The effects work — expensive, no doubt — is impressive and grounded in the film’s lifelike aesthetic. The sound design, in particular, should be commended; the film is an aural beast and all the sounds of cars going vroom are confidently served up. Anthony Dod Mantle is one of the best cinematographers working today and effortlessly skilful at adding a sense of dynamism to films (see Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours for proof). He shoots this film brilliantly; you have never seen racing filmed like this before.
Rush is the proverbial “$40 Million Film”: the term reserved for smart dramas aimed at adults, so hard to find in today’s cinematic landscape which is dictated by an “all-or-nothing” mindset. It may not be as good as other members of the club, such as The Social Network (also produced by Scott Rudin), but we would all be better off if there were more films like it. You should check it out.
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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures