Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan. Produced by Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Peter Morgan, Brian Oliver. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle. Edited by Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill. Production designed by Mark Digby. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Steven Mangan.
Rush is a passable exercise within a genre that doesn’t compel me, the testosterone-drenched petty-rivalry-and-posturing sports film. The sport is Formula One racing, which provides visual interest and kinetic excitement, but the scenes set outside the track are the crucial ones, the ones that should make us care about these characters, and for far too much of Rush’s running time, they don’t. This leads to a film featuring death-defying danger with frustratingly low stakes, as it essentially boils down to a childish argument between jerks. It’s constructed like a crowd-pleaser but runs on empty for too long, and that’s especially disappointing coming from Ron Howard, a director who sometimes tells tight stories about strong personalities. Here he stays in the shallow end.
The crux of the plot involves the real-life 1970s personality clash between the British driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), two men who both come from wealth but treat it, like their respective skills and hungers, very differently. Lauda is pensive and withdrawn, prone to anger just as much as regret; he has few friends but is humanized by a beautiful wife (Alexandra Maria Lara). Hunt is a cocky, hard-drinking skirt-chaser with a self-destructive streak. Both men are rendered practically as cartoons, and Lauda is the only one who flirts with being possibly complex. This means that the film’s racing scenes are unanchored, because no matter who wins the Grand Prix, it’s difficult to care.
The fault is not the two actors; indeed, it’s a testament to their skill that they make these two figures merely obnoxious instead of insufferable. Hemsworth continues his path to becoming a movie star, and Brühl gets to shine for many American audiences for the first time with the juicier part of Lauda. They try mightily to wring real drama out of Peter Morgan’s very cliché script, and for some, it should be said, they will succeed. But the film’s general thesis never ventures much further than the observation that these two didn’t get along. And…so what? What’s your point?
The movie is a tiresome boy’s club, stuffed with so much boasting and bravado and sexism that it feels less like a document of the 70’s and more of an artifact. Hemsworth jumps from bed to bed, pausing only temporarily to marry a model (Olivia Wilde) who then leaves him for Richard Burton, in a series of scenes so perfunctory and useless that they play like biopic parody. Slightly more lucky is Lara, as Lauda’s wife, who supports her man as arm candy and stares meaningfully at TV monitors on race day. It’s not necessarily an issue that the film has such weak roles for women, given its time period. But it does underline the fact that this is a movie for men who love Formula One racing, and not really anyone else.
After ninety minutes of lagging momentum, Rush picks up for a third act that draws more from real life than racing movies, when Lauda suffers a horrific crash (which Hunt is somewhat responsible for) and tries to re-enter the world of racing while suffering burns and disfigurement. It provides some long-needed emotional heft to the proceedings, and while Lauda’s passion for the sport is never quite explained, it at least shows his drive and illustrates the costs of the lifestyle. By comparison, Hemsworth’s Hunt only comes across as more juvenile and stupid than ever during the climax, due to the juxtaposition. Racing novices will be forgiven for perhaps shrugging at these two guys putting their lives on the line for a shiny Grand Prix prize. For Formula One enthusiasts, Rush’s subject matter is probably endlessly nerve-wracking, but for those on the outside it’s all been-there, driven-that.
As director, Howard does a fine job with the racing scenes, balancing geography and chaos in equal measures. And his cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, gamely reproduces the saturated, rich colors of a 70’s production (although that choice is undercut by Hans Zimmer’s tuneless postmodern drone of a musical score). But Rush is more technical craft than heart. It’s sure to please fans but lacks the insight to transcend its limitations. Story and character must serve as the engine for a movie like this, and Rush’s is sadly too puny to get into first gear.