Ron Howard has attained a level of reliable quality, but he rarely tops anyone’s favorite lists. His movies are good, but almost never great. Apollo 13 has its moments and Splash comes close at points, but most of the time, he deals in resolutely competent studio filler. They’re well-made movies (with a modest sprinkling of boners), and they often deliver on their promises, but they lack the spark that defines cinema’s truly great directors.
That’s one of the reasons why Rush surprised me so much. More than being Howard’s most accomplished film to date, it’s one of only a tiny handful that can make a case for greatness. Moreover, it absolutely depends on Howard’s combination of traits to shine. A director with a more distinctive style might have imposed it over the material to its ultimate detriment, while someone less technically proficient couldn’t have framed the film’s racing sequences so brilliantly while still keeping the needs of story and character in the forefront. The late Tony Scott might have pulled it off… but then again, he tried something similar (Days of Thunder) with less-than-memorable results. Rush is a first-rate racing picture (all-too-rare to begin with), but racing isn’t the point. The point is how the very best in that sport balance their near addiction to it with the very real possibility that it could kill them.
Pulled from actual events, it recounts a rivalry for the ages between two Formula One drivers in the 1970s. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was an egotistical aristocrat who viewed the sport as the ultimate expression of his jet-setter lifestyle. Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) was a cold, calculating Austrian who played the numbers to a fault and who exasperated his teammates at Ferrari as much as he did his opponents. They were polar opposites and they both wanted the Formula One championship more than anyone else in the world. They just had to go through each other to get it.
Rush charts their path through the 1976 season, an incredible journey that pushes both men to their limits. In the process, their rivalry makes them both better racers, even as the risks of their profession grow from event to event. Before the season is over, one near-certain champion will come face-to-face with his own mortality, and another will chance everything he has in an attempt to keep the pace.
Howard constantly emphasizes the dangers of Formula One racing, as well as the way these men could coax their machines to staggering feats of greatness. But as brilliant as the white-knuckle moments on the track can be, he constantly comes back to the men themselves. Rush stays away from easy stereotypes (either one of these figures could be painted in simplistic good guy/bad guy terms without much thought), instead dedicating himself to a nuanced look at what makes them tick. Both men end up driving those closest to them insane, yet they’re not entirely selfish, nor do they put on any pretense about their flaws. On the flipside, they’re both absolutely dedicated to what they do, and for Hunt at least, take a fierce primal joy in doing it. Their differing approaches set them on a collision course, but in the midst of their competition, they discover greater things about themselves and the sport they love so much.
Howard’s strong touch with actors is in full force here. Hemsworth basically plays Race Car Thor, but he’s very good within that framework, and he never lets us forget that there’s a real live person behind the image onscreen. Bruhl, for his part, delivers one of the best performances of the year, embodying the cliché of the robotic German while showing flashes of far more interesting depths in the corners. The remainder of the cast (including Olivia Wilde, David Calder and Alexandra Maria Lara) are left trailing behind them haplessly, doing their best but hopelessly overshadowed by the duel/duet that serves as Rush’s raison d’etre.
To that, add some tremendous cinematography and editing (from Anthony Dod Mantle and Daniel P Hanley respectively) to send the racing sequences into overdrive. We see each event piecemeal: snippets of sound and motion combined with establishing shots to give us both the big picture and the gripping focus of the drivers themselves. Watching Rush, you can easily understand how this life could get into your blood, and why you’d want to keep at it past even concerns for your personal safety.
The results prove irresistible no matter what you’re hoping to get out of it. You could call it one of the best action pictures of the year, coupled with a drama that constantly finds new ways to engage us. Howard’s crowd-pleasing instincts ensure that it never drags, and the film’s obvious Oscar ambitions don’t entail a slide into self-importance. You’d never know it looking at the bland poster and indifferent ad campaign: a grave disservice to a film that electrifies a fairly mediocre year. The need for speed is alive and well in Rush. Thanks to Howard and his crew, that’s only the beginning of what this grand piece of filmmaking has to offer.