There aren’t many screenwriters that break through into the public consciousness. Unless it’s a comedy or the work of the director, it’s very unlikely to be promoted as “the writers that brought you…” Aaron Sorkin, Tom Stoppard, and William Goldman may be exceptional in their being both popularly known and uninvolved in direction or performance (though Stoppard did direct one film, but that doesn’t count). Peter Morgan, the writer for Rush (2013), may lack the distinctive voice of Sorkin, the poetry of Stoppard, or the blazing heart of Goldman, but he does have an impressive list of credits that suggest he may approach similar status. With credits like The Last King of Scotland (2006), The Queen (2006), and Frost/Nixon (2008)–along with some British films of which you may be less aware–Morgan’s work shows consistently upper-middle brow intentions (and success). Rush is incredibly well-paired with Ron Howard‘s top-notch direction to smooth out a film that might have spun out of control like so many have done this year.
Formula racing isn’t really something we know much about in America. Did you know, for example, that there are four classes (Formula 4, Three, Two, and One)? In 1970, two Formula Three drivers, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a British playboy who thrives on his death-defying, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), an uptight Austrian who approaches racing like a job, race for the first time. From the very start, a tense rivalry begins, made more deranged by the high risk of death resulting from accidents. Hunt has the backing of Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) to get him a Formula One car while Lauda takes out a loan to buy his way onto the Ferrari team. Hesketh loses money in the venture and Hunt is left without a car, watching Lauda ride to become world champion. Then, in 1976, Hunt gets himself onto the Maclaren team and races to get neck-and-neck in the rankings with Lauda until disaster strikes. [NB: In Formula One, like NASCAR, points are given for placement in each race.]
One of the benefits of being completely ignorant of Formula One racing is that this story could plausibly end in any way without my being the wiser. Who wins? Who dies? Who cares? You care and you know why? Because this is Ron Howard we’re talking about. Howard’s career is difficult to describe, wandering from thriller to family movie to period epic. Sometime’s he’s Steven Spielberg, sometimes he’s Rob Reiner, and in Rush he’s more like Tony Scott without the nausea. It certainly has a stylized color palette (Anthony Dod Mantle) that gives the images a lot of punch.
If I may dabble in cliché, Rush will have you on the edge of your seat, white-knuckling these races both because of the rhythm of the camera and the well-established stakes. But he’s still Ron Howard, so the centerpiece of the film is this rivalry and the people behind them. It was always clear why these guys were engaging in this crazy ‘sport’. Then you’ve got Hans Zimmer on the drums, as if you needed more Tony Scott influence, to hit the production side with all the best to hand. Really well made. And the Spanish got the poster right, “The closer you are to death, the more you feel alive.” Better than a crummy pun like “Everyone’s driven by something.”
Add to its credit fine performances by Hemsworth and Brühl as well as Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s model wife. Alexandra Maria Lara as Mrs. Lauda was, perhaps, too understated to be considered a character, but I’ll chalk that up to Morgan/Howard not knowing where to go with someone who lets their husband who barely escaped death get back into the metal coffin. The very worst part of the film, and it would be par for the course in any other movie of this sort, is the final meeting between Hunt and Lauda where they expound their motivations with painful clarity. It’s painful because it is totally superfluous. If you needed that last conversation, you simply weren’t watching the movie.
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