Ron Howard, the director responsible for respectable, initially celebrated works such as A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, falls victim to the pitfalls of retrospective criticism more than most. You can find highly positive contemporaneous reviews of A Beautiful Mind, but everyone now knows it’s the undeserving Best Picture winner. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who recalls the at-the-time well-received likes of Cinderella Man.
Howard has rarely been a risk-taking filmmaker. His films, good or bad, tend to quickly fade from the memory, beset by issues of the director playing it too safe. But Howard’s good sense on Rush is to repeat his Frost/Nixon success by surrounding himself with superior writing and acting talent, and essentially film damn good theatre. The result is a small triumph of great material overcoming the limitations of the director.
Chronicling the rivalry between Formula One stars James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), Rush finds Howard again teaming up with Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan, with Morgan delivering another intimate 1970s-set drama about two opposed personalities trying to come out on top as victor. But the film bares striking similarity to a more recent documentary; and as was the case with 2011’s Senna, Morgan knows the key to retaining the interest of a non-motor racing fan is to keep his eye on the drama off-track.
The true merit of Rush lies in its depiction of the two leads, portraying them both as deeply flawed and frequently unlikeable people without ever vilifying either of them. Hunt is an arrogant, self-centred womaniser, while Lauda is emotionally cold and ruthless in his honesty. And yet they are devilishly fascinating as characters, taking such exception in their mutual hatred that they risk death on the track just to prove their superiority.
Scenes of Hunt and Lauda together, verbally exploiting one another’s weaknesses (playboy Hunt makes light of Lauda’s unpopularity, while Lauda dares suggest Hunt isn’t a champion), feel more charged than the races themselves. Lauda overtaking Hunt on the track doesn’t have as much impact as, say, Lauda post-race goading Hunt for alienating his new wife (Olivia Wilde), a testament to Morgan’s ability as a writer of dialogue. It’s in their fierce determination to belittle each other that Lauda and Hunt compel.
It’s maybe why Rush momentarily sags when it shifts focus onto the men as individuals. There’s a joy to be had in witnessing the extent of Hunt’s mischievous hedonism, drinking and bedhopping his time away between races, and Lauda’s blunt social awkwardness makes for some laughs, but Rush is built as a two-hander, a movie about competition between fanatics. The respective love lives of Hunt and Lauda are emotionally unengaging, mere sidenotes to their life in F1.
But no matter; Morgan’s intention is to highlight the power of intense rivalry, making the argument that two talented individuals become greater when placed in direct opposition. As Hunt and Lauda are better when pushing each other to new highs, Rush is simply a better film when Hunt and Lauda are together on-screen. And it would hardly work if the two actors selected to fill roles so crucial to the film’s success weren’t ready to inhabit those characters.
Hemsworth makes a grinning showboat of James Hunt, and is surprisingly loose and playful where previous roles have seen him so stolid, but Daniel Bruhl as Lauda is the piece of star casting. Taking the pretty Inglourious Basterds actor and rebuilding him as “Austrian rat” Lauda has resulted in Bruhl giving a performance of immense maturity and control. Hemsworth shows off new moves too, but he already has Thor to keep him in gainful employment for years to come. For Bruhl, here totally transformed, it’s the introduction of a potential new international star.
Who knows how long Rush will endure, if it’ll turn out to be another forgettable Cinderella Man or A Beautiful Mind. It’s the danger of reacting to a film in the immediate here-and-now, and if previous Ron Howard movies have taught us anything, it’s that they tend not to linger. Yet Rush remains wonderfully written by Peter Morgan – it’s perhaps his best to date – featuring two young actors seeking new depths as two compelling subjects. Right now, it feels like Rush could last.