'Rush': Howard kicks it into high gear with racing excellence
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The trailers and other promo materials for this movie make a big deal out of "the will to win," which might strike fear in the hearts of some moviegoers who are feeling overfed by tales of the "triumph of the human spirit" and all those sorts of things. But "Rush," the entirely exhilarating and engaging race-car-rivalry drama written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, manages to go impressively deeper than platitude-level with their narrative and characterization, and, at the same time, they deliver a highly satisfying and enjoyable popcorn movie.
It isn't as if they lack for material. Racing aficionados have long known that the fierce rivalry and highly contrasting styles of 1970s-ascendent Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda is a saga worthy of modern myth. (They're not the only ones, either: For years director David Cronenberg had tried to make a film based on Formula One drivers Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips.) Hunt and Lauda, as depicted here, have contrasting styles that a classicist might describe as Dionysian and Apollonian and a bro might describe as "party animal" and "stick up the butt." But, as superbly portrayed by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, these drivers are hardly cardboard cutouts of concepts. It's Hunt who, in voice-over early in the movie, announces that race car drivers are "people who are desperate to make a mark and are willing to die trying," and that there's something pretty messed-up about that. Both men have the "will" to win, but the real story of "Rush," after it begins with a gray-sky pre-race prologue that portends a massive life change for one of the rivals, has to do with where these men set their limits. And this is where the surprises of the movie lie.
In simple terms, Hunt is the charismatic showman and Lauda the VERY stereotypically Germanic wonk. Lauda's confidence in his engineering and driving skill is inextricably muddied by his resentment of the more populist and handsome Hunt. Hunt, on the other hand -- and this is a slightly more difficult thing to convey convincingly -- is hobbled by his good looks and breezy demeanor in that it makes it hard for him to even take himself seriously, and especially at times when he most needs to. These character flaws drive the parts of the movie that aren't driven by tense, exciting race scenes that convey both the excitement of high-speed racing and the tedium and smashed expectations created by technical glitches and other unexpected contingencies. And, of course, the terror of being trapped in a car that has just exploded into a fireball.
This happens to one of the characters, and I won't say which, although given that Lauda and Hunt are/were real people, the whole thing's a matter of historical record. It is in the aftermath of the accident, as it happens, that "Rush" shifts into its highest gear. We've gotten to know these guys, their very genuine dislike of each other, their different ways of road mastery, their different loves (Hunt's is portrayed by Olivia Wilde in a rather generic '70s model mode, while Lauda's gets a nicely nuanced treatment from Alexandra Maria Lara). The resolution of their racing relationship, and of their personal relationship, finally does, in conventional movie fashion, yield to a revelation of mutual admiration. But it's a mutual admiration that acknowledges the difficulty of its being. In acknowledging some hard emotional truths, this movie, Ron Howard's best since "Apollo 13," earns its humanist stripes as well as its racing ones. Excellent stuff.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.