Ron Howard is kind of an everyman’s director. He isn’t above his audience, knows exactly what they want, and generally gives it to them without pandering. Sometimes the end product doesn’t workout — see The Dilemma or the Robert Langdon movies to learn that the hard way — but when it does, the final film can be quite special, especially if Howard really has something to say. With Rush, he definitely does.
It’s easy to see why Howard was attracted to the characters at the center of Rush including competing Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The film raises questions every filmmaker must grapple with: What is success? How do you overcome failure? And how can one bring personality and passion to a business? The balance of art and commerce is something Howard’s dramas — Cinderella Man, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, and A Beautiful Mind — have achieved in the past, and so does Rush.
Howard milks every single cent from his budget to tell the tale of Lauda and Hunt’s rivalry. At a certain point I lost track of how many races there were in the film, but all of them are distinct, visually engaging, and of emotional or structural importance. Even if you’re not a fan of racing — and why would you be? — Rush works because the aforementioned drama could apply to any number of careers and personal struggles. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan portray Lauda and Hunt’s ups and downs with clean, to the point storytelling.
The only narrative misstep is Hunt’s wife, Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde). It’s the kind of role that probably ended up on the editing room floor. Suzy has four prominent scenes including her flirtatious first meeting with Hunt, their wedding, an argument, and the end of their marriage. It’s all handled with such brevity that by time the relationship is over, it has no emotional impact. That has nothing to do with Wilde’s performance, but by however the character was written or handled in post-production. Wilde has immense charm in her brief screen time (with a pretty good English accent, too boot), so why they’re both not in the film more is a mystery. But if we’re being realistic, it was most likely for pacing.
While Suzy Miller doesn’t succeed as a character she does as an idea. When James Hunt loses her he’s more saddened by the fact he lost her to another guy, not because she’ll no longer be a part of his life; he can’t accept losing, both personally and professionally. Howard and Morgan paint a convincing and often sad portrait of a man driven by winning, no matter the cost. They never make excuses for him, but it’s not hard to find empathy for him.
Hemsworth gives a real star quality performance here as he plays charming, narcissistic, conflicted, and everything else Rush asks of him. There’s nothing he can’t do here. Everything spoken about in Hunt’s opening narration is eventually shown by Howard, Morgan, and Hemsworth. This is a guy who’s going to live life to the fullest and fastest, always with a smile on his face. Seeing that flamboyant persona conflict with Lauda’s strict demeanor is the highlight of the film.
While Hunt is the quarterback fueled by his instincts, Lauda is the bookworm driven by cold logic. They’re polar opposites, except when it comes to their passion. This is where Rush becomes more than a surface-level “sports” movie. The dramatic conflict between Lauda and Hunt isn’t that they personally loathe each other or are fighting for the same girl, but that they define winning differently. They’re driven by differing meanings of success and racing. For most of the movie they don’t understand each other, but when they learn to, it’s rather inspiring.
The film pulls out a big loud speaker to put an exclamation point on that message by the end with Lauda’s closing narration. That may be the only instance where Howard’s goal to please everyone misses the mark, laying on the moral a tad too thickly. By the way Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl interact in, we know they’ve come to respect and understand each other.
Hemsworth and Brühl quickly develop a rapport, and even though they don’t share much screen time together their relationship as Lauda and Hunt is convincing, funny, cool, and often emotional, and the same goes for the rest of Howard’s full-package of a movie.
The Upside: Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are highly watchable; well-staged races; Howard’s most visually engaging piece in years; Hans Zimmer‘s quietly thumping score; not a total boys show; the movie is as passionate as its two leads
The Downside: The narration is often redundant; Suzy Miller is expendable as a character; more Christian McKay would’ve been nice.
On The Side: Rush is a British indie Paul Greengrass was originally hired to make.