Director Ron Howard returns to theatres with Rush, a new movie centered on the 1976 season of Formula One auto racing and the rivalry of two of the best drivers: James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It's an unlikely movie for me to like... because I've never really seen the point to auto racing (I really, really don't understand the obsession with NASCAR in particular, but that might be a cultural thing). Still, one doesn't have to appreciate the sport to appreciate the movie. What we really have here, beyond the sport of auto racing, is a character study, a tale of two men who are very different, and yet strive to be the best at what they do. And grounding the story in that character study makes the film succeed.
Hunt is played here by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers). He's brash, cocky, a womanizer, the life of the party. He loves the thrill of the race, lives large and loves fast. His rival, Lauda, is played by the German actor Daniel Bruhl, whose previous works for American audiences include Inglourious Basterds (never saw it, thanks to my disdain for Quentin Tarentino), plus a walk on in The Bourne Ultimatum. Lauda is much more introverted and calculating, a serious minded racer with an engineer's mindset and a cold, withdrawn personality. The two men are very different from each other, aside from their considerable skills as drivers. That strong rivalry exists between them, and we see that play itself out, but neither man is the antagonist of the film. The story doesn't pit one firmly in our favour and the other against. It instead examines their personalities, showing us the sort of people who'd want to enter a profession with such a dangerous (and well deserved, at that) reputation. Indeed, some of what happens through the course of the film is decidedly traumatic, to say the least (you might want to close your eyes once or twice). We also meet the women in their lives; Hunt briefly marries Suzy (Olivia Wilde), while Lauda ends up getting involved with a socialite, Marlene, played by Alexandra Maria Lara.
Writer Peter Morgan gives us the screenplay, and he's worked with Howard before, on the character drama Frost/ Nixon. His other work includes The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Last King Of Scotland, so as a screenwriter, he has an innate understanding of character. Morgan gives us a story that shows us this side of the world, the sort of person who's drawn to a sport where a single small mistake can be catastrophic. His story makes the audience think about that central question: who'd want to be in a sport this dangerous? Is a championship worth one's life?
From a production point of view, the film sets us directly in the world of racing, and the time itself; it's very much the Seventies. The cinematography by Anthony Mantle sets us squarely into the races and lets us keep track of what's happening in a way that perhaps isn't so easily done in auto racing live. Attention to detail has been paid in every way you might expect, and we feel like we're right there. At the same time, Howard and Mantle pay as much detail, along with the crew, to sequences away from the track, as it should be. The film is accompanied by frequent Howard collaborator Hans Zimmer's rock-infused score, as bombastic as you might come to expect from him.
The casting is ideal, and let's start with the supporting roles. Alexandra Maria Lara is a Romanian actress whose work has mostly been in Europe (I hadn't seen her before in anything), but her resume is impressive, and she gives us an interesting take on the wife of a racer here. I'd like to see more of her. Olivia Wilde, an actress whose work I like and who takes on roles that interest her and never seem quite the same, embodies the excess of the era in the flamboyant Suzy. I last saw her in a character drama called Deadfall, where she and most of the rest of a cast that included Eric Bana, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams completely outdid the talent lacking Charlie Hunnam in the acting department (this does not bode well for the future star of that 50 Shades adaptation). This role is a switch for her, but then she is a chameleon in her film choices anyway. Pierfrancesco Favino, who last appeared for Howard in Angels & Demons, turns up here as a racer, and character actor David Calder does a turn as well. Both are familiar faces, and both are very welcome.
It is ultimately the casting of the two leads that forms the core of the film. Hemsworth is ideally cast as the brash and handsome Hunt, the daring racer who strives to win, who's willing to play the game, and who lets his ego take the driver's seat from time to time. At a moment when he must confront the consequences of disaster- when we see him confronting the prospect of mortality, it makes his performance all the more compelling. We get to know what makes this man tick through Hemsworth's take on him. And Bruhl is well cast too. He conveys the calculating, insular nature of Lauda, the intensely serious man well, and his performance gets us into his head. The two actors bring across that rivalry very well, that obsessive need for speed, and they make the audience understand a mentality of people we might otherwise assume belong in an asylum for pursuing such a line of work.
Ron Howard has become known for blockbuster films, of course. Had he remained an actor, he would have been cursed by typecasting for the rest of his career. Instead he became a director, and as such, he became an interesting storyteller. He's delved into the blockbuster side of things throughout his career, the grand scale with films like Apollo 13, Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, and Angels & Demons. Yet all of those were based in character, as was the aforementioned Frost/ Nixon, and I was reminded of another film in his past: Cinderella Man. Boxing is another sport I could care less about, but he told a story in that film that drew in the audience and made us care. He accomplishes the same here, giving us a terrific racing film regardless of what we think of the sport. And since it's so steeped in character as its basis, it becomes a movie that is both blockbuster material and art house film. It gives us two compelling, human leads, keeps us in suspense, and draws us right into the time and place.