Two years ago, when I was discussing the film Moneyball I told a lot of people that while I mostly liked it, I didn’t think it would be all that interesting or understandable to people who aren’t baseball fans. Later that year, when I saw the biographical Formula 1 documentary Senna I came to wonder if I was wrong about that. It occurred to me that the fact that Senna was about a foreign sport that I wasn’t familiar with had actually increased my enjoyment of the film because it allowed me to watch a legendary sports story play out without any foreknowledge or preconceived notions about the real events that inspired the film. It’s with that in mind that I had some high hopes for the film Rush, which is also about a famous rivalry in the history of Formula 1 racing, which is a sport that I know nothing about but hold no ill-will towards.
The rivalry at the film’s center is between a pair of drivers named James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the film primarily covers their actions during the 1976 F1 season. To put it lightly, these guys hate each other, and most of what they do in the film is motivated by an intense desire to crush the other. Early in the season it appears that Lauda, who moved up from lower divisions earlier and was on the Ferrari team, but as the season rolls on Hunt begins to catch up and it quickly begins to seem like there’s going to be a real race to the finish to see who will win the season.
Rush was written by Peter Morgan, a writer whose mostly made his name writing non-fiction films The Queen and Frost/Nixon which revolve around strong willed people clashing against one another. As such, I can totally see why he’d be attracted to this particular rivalry because Lauda and Hunt are a pair of opposites who contrast one another in a number of interesting ways. Both men exemplify different sides or what is supposed to make a great racer: Lauda is a gearhead and strategist who perfectly calibrates his cars and uses his intellect to race effectively while Hunt is a daredevil and thrill seeker who uses his courage and passion to win the day. Their differences continue when they’re off the track. Hunt lives hard, he drinks heavily, smokes heavily, sleeps with groupies, and carries himself with a cocky rockstar attitude. Lauda, by contrast, is a rather cold person with limited social skills and a lot of people just don’t like the guy.
One could easily envision a version of this film that only follows one of these guys while vilifying the other, but the truth of the matter that both racers are assholes in their own unique way. I think the film will prove to be something of a Rorschach test where different viewers will empathize with one racer or the other. Personally I found Lauda to be the more sympathetic of the two, but of course I would, I’m a lot like him and know what it’s like to have to live in the shadow of a dumb jock who thinks he’s a hero because he behaves like a self-destructive dickhead. Conversely I’m sure there are a lot of extroverts who would find Hunt’s antics to be amusing or enviable and think that Lauda is a know-it-all weasel. The film never really takes sides in the matter, and both racers are given their moments to shine both on and off the track.
So, we’ve got an interesting script by sports movie standards, what about the execution? Well the film had one big red flag on its record in the form of its director: Ron Howard. Ron Howard is a filmmaker who’s shown some promise in the past, but since then he’s become the epitome of dull and safe prestige filmmaking. Still, there was something about this project which made me think it had a chance of bringing Howard back to his former Apollo 13 glory. This, however, was not to be. Howard doesn’t botch the film necessarily, but he is the weak link. As has been the case in a lot of Howard’s recent work, the cinematography here is muddy and unpleasant and the editing is good, but not as tight and perfect as you’d want from a big budget auto racing movie. In fact, there really isn’t a ton of racing in this movie, we mostly just see short fragments of any given race and we rarely see an entire race play out.
In final analysis, Rush is a good movie, but not a great one. Peter Morgan is on to something with this story, but he telegraphs too many of his messages in his dialogue and while both actors are good (especially Brühl) I wouldn’t say either give performances for the ages. I can’t help but think that this movie would have been so much more if its screenplay had been handed to someone who was in a better position to make a proper action/sports movie. I can only imagine how well it could have turned out in the hands of a Danny Boyle or a David Fincher or a Michael Mann. Instead we have the version directed by Ron Howard and… it could have turned out a lot worse I guess. It probably is Howards best film in almost a decade, so, there’s that.
*** out of Four