Sunday, February 23, 2014
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer
Running Time: 122 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Fear is a pro athlete's worst enemy. Once it enters the equation trouble usually follows. But it's only when you've realized it's there that it's really over. There's a great scene in Ron Howard's Formula One motor racing drama, Rush, depicting that. Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) tells his new wife that he'll be a worse driver now because he's happy and has something to lose. It's the defining moment of the film because it's that little sliver of doubt creeping in that every competitor fights against. Niki's nemesis, Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) rarely has such thoughts, or when he does, quickly dismisses them by vomiting before the race. The movie is about their rivalry during the 1976 season that saw Lauda being pulled from a flaming Ferrari while Hunt fought to accumulate enough points to catch up and take his crown. And neither is particularly likable, to the point that your opinion on who the bigger jerk is may waver from scene to scene.
There's nothing in screenwriter Peter Morgan's script that shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings or depicts either driver as a hero. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite stance is being taken with a thoughtful, sometimes cutthroat examination of why these guys would risk their lives and how that adrenaline rush of cheating death can become as addictive as a drug. It isn't your typical sports drama and doesn't end like one either, taking the cliche of that last "Big Race" and flipping it on its head. The stance it takes is gutsy and it's because of that lack of manipulation that viewers will come away with more respect for these two than they would if their story were given the typical Hollywoodization. Based on a true story, it feels like it actually is one, taking a straightforward, biographical approach without playing any games. That this comes from the writer/director team behind Frost/Nixon strangely makes sense, as it's also about two unlikely rivals thrown together by circumstance and history. One of the most sumptuously shot films of the year, it plays like a great, feature-length 30 for 30 on steroids.
The film begins 8 years prior to that legendary 1976 season as the two drivers couldn't possibly have more contrasting personalities, philosophies and attitudes both on and off the track. Hunt is a womanizing, hard partying rock star-like racer who lives for the rush while Lauda is a cold, calculating technician and expert strategist out there to get the job done. They detest one another almost immediately, with each representing what the other can't stand about the sport. We see how they eventually became heated rivals, with an arrogant Lauda buying his way into competition but still fighting for the respect he feels is owed to him while the freewheeling James Hunt is already racking up victories. Soon, the tide turns with James playing catch up and struggling to find a team that will take him because of his reckless behavior. Their feud rages on, exchanging victories and losses until it becomes less about being world champion than beating the other, regardless of the toll it takes on their personal lives and marriages. At least until the German Grand Prix, which ends up being the race that changes everything.
What's captured so well by Ron Howard is how two athletes at the apex of their profession can simultaneously hate and respect each other. The one thing no one wishes on a fellow competitor under any circumstances happens to Niki Lauda, with the fiery crash itself playing as a nightmare that's almost impossible to watch, as a burning inferno engulfs him for a good minute. A minute that may as well be an eternity for him. How he survived a crash like that at all (in 1976 no less) is astonishing in itself, but what unfolds in its aftermath can't be spoiled other than to say it drastically changes their rivalry and relationship in completely unexpected ways. Even the circumstances leading up to the crash are so odd I'm not even sure I'd believe it if it wasn't based on a true story.
Much acclaim has rightfully gone to Daniel Brühl for his portrayal of the stubborn, almost pathologically mechanical Lauda and what's great about the performance is how it doesn't give us some cookie-cutter sports hero who overcame the odds or shy away from diving into the uglier, obsessive aspects of his personality. Hemsworth deserves more credit than he's getting as Hunt because while it's unquestionably an example of perfect casting (think Thor in a race car), he never plays the guy as a brainless lug. As crazy as Hunt was, he manages to do something that borders on being subtle and sympathetic, especially as the film wears on. Both men have their inner demons and its scripted and edited to put them on equal footing, playing as kind of a dual biopic that short changes neither athlete.
As Hunt's wife Suzy, Olivia Wilde isn't given a whole lot to do, but even that strangely makes sense given the driver's lifestyle and penchant for collecting women as hood ornaments. But in her few scenes, the retro looking Wilde definitely makes an impact, as she usually does. The idea that he would get married as some kind of misguided attempt at normalcy and stability is interesting. Hunt was who he was and even she acknowledges that trying to change that is a lost cause. Lauda's relationship with his wife Marlene (a really great Alexandra Maria Lara) is justifiably given more emphasis since it's pushed to the limit through tragedy. Their relationship ultimately becomes the centerpiece of the picture and deserves to be because it's handled in a realistic manner that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence or extol false messages of hope and perseverance. It earns its stripes by simply being honest from the moment the two meet to when Lauda is fighting for his life in the hospital.
Both men are confronted with the question of whether this is worth their lives and while it should seem obvious how dangerous a sport this is, this is a film that really shows it, with the camera taking you into the car to feel the terror and exhilaration. Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shooting it in this hazy, vintage style befitting the story, action and time period, giving it a look that resembles nothing else Ron Howard's ever made. Hans Zimmer's score might not soar to the spectacularly over-the-top heights of his synth-heavy composition for Days of Thunder, but this isn't that kind of movie, despite the shared subject matter. It's unlikely anyone would confuse the two films on any other grounds either, and as much as I love Thunder, it's tough to defend it on grounds other than as a cheesy, guilty pleasure that's very much of its time. This feels more timeless, and with little guilt attached to enjoying it, regardless of whether or not you're familiar with the sport. Nothing is too "inside," as its effectiveness comes in setting a universal story within the racing world.
As a deadly serious examination of the sport that still somehow finds room for some subtle humor in the rivalry, Morgan's script takes giant creative liberties with the drivers' real life relationship (they were actually good friends), but those choices are defensible in bringing to the surface greater truths about their differing approaches to the sport and their lives. The film bravely posits that it isn't a coincidence which one of these men survived, with Hunt clearly subscribing to the Neil Young philosophy that it's better to burn out than fade away. The highest compliment to Rush is when we're eventually shown actual footage of Hunt and Lauda I still thought I was watching a dramatization. It's the kind of authenticity every sports film strives for, but so very rarely achieves.