Reviews in the Nick of Time: Rush

by wjw on October 4, 2013

rushpicI used to follow motor sport more than I do now, so I thought, despite my deep reluctance to view another blockbuster, that I’d check out Ron Howard’s racing film, and see if I could recapture my youthful enthusiasm for Formula 1.

After all, I was possibly the only person on the planet who liked Howard’s previous racing film, Wind, about the America’s Cup.

I was a bit surprised when I walked into the theater and saw my fellow viewers. Okay, so it was a matinee, but still . . . I was the only person in the room who didn’t qualify for a pension. This didn’t look like the audience for the latest iteration of The Fast and the Furious. They looked like they’d got tickets for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and wandered into the wrong theater. In fact I wandered out to make sure I was in the right theater, and I was. I figured the film had already lost the youth audience.

Rush concerns the 1976 racing season, in which the Austrian Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) went head to head for the world championship with the Brit James Hunt (played by THE MIGHTY THOR).

Niki Lauda, short and rat-faced, was unpopular among his fellow drivers, because (1) he was the best driver in the world, and (2) the smartest guy in the room, and (3) therefore didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. He also earned a certain amount of resentment because he came from a wealthy banking family and bought his way into Formula racing by borrowing against his life insurance . . . which I’m sure we all wish we could do.

James Hunt, who looked like THE MIGHTY THOR, was the poster boy for Seventies excess, what with the drinking, the drugs, the copulation with anything in a skirt, the flamboyant and dangerous driving style, and the supermodel wife (who eventually ran off with Richard Burton). He was the whole Seventies package, pretty much.

He didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought, either, but he didn’t give a damn with a charismatic smile, whereas Lauda would be inclined to deliver a lengthy, detailed verbal essay about why the other person was wrong, another reason why people didn’t like him.

Despite Hunt’s charisma, Lauda (the previous year’s champion) was clearly still the best in the world, and would have swept the championship if not for his legendary crash at the Nürburgring, when he drove his Ferrari well past its tolerance for abuse, broke his machine, spun out, was rammed by two other cars, and was then trapped in the burning wreck for over a minute, breathing flames, before other drivers finally wrenched him loose. He required a disfiguring skin graft on his face, and to painfully have his lungs vacuumed out. Nevertheless he was back in the saddle after only six weeks, still in position to challenge Hunt for the championship.

So there it was, racing’s supreme technician and odds calculator vs. THE MIGHTY THOR. It’s Plotter vs. Pantser! A pretty good setup for a movie, don’t you think?

Except, for some reason, Ron Howard keeps distancing us from the action. The story is told by Niki Lauda in flashback, which tends to remind us that the ending isn’t going to be a surprise. For a movie about Formula 1, there are surprisingly few exciting racing scenes— we get snippets of races, often with commentary by radio announcers to put us in the picture, which distances us even more. Even Lauda’s Nürburgring crash, which should be the heart of the movie, is partially shown via television commentary on the action. (Jesus Christ, Howard, put us in the scene! It’s a flaming car crash! We all know what that is! You don’t have to have TV announcers explaining it!)

And the final confrontation is something of a bust, because Lauda abandoned the race after a few laps saying that the racing conditions were too dangerous. (Which, for the record, they were. The Japan Grand Prix had a new TV contract, and they weren’t going to lose their prime slot in the TV schedule just because it was pouring down buckets of rain.)

But Ron Howard movies really aren’t about action anyway, they’re about character, and he does a pretty good job of putting us into the picture re: his two antagonists. He does file off some of the rough edges that would have made the characters more interesting, such as Hunt’s legendary banging of 33 Japan Air stewardesses while in the country for the Japan Grand Prix, a feat that required a rather complicated rota that put the actual Grand Prix organization to shame.

Hunt and Lauda were actually friendly, and roomed together at one point, but the script turns them into bitter rivals, which is good for the drama if not for history. Yet Howard made James Hunt less debauched, less interesting, and more likable. An odd decision, but in character (for Howard, who doesn’t like to put unlikeable people in his pictures).

I liked the film well enough, but I want to be thrilled by a racing movie, and I wasn’t by this one. I’d give the movie three and a half Pirelli tires . . . and if you’re a senior citizen on a pension, you might want to check out the movie next door.

Matt October 4, 2013 at 3:21 am

I also enjoyed Wind a lot!

Ralf The Dog. October 4, 2013 at 7:47 am

I would guess, racing movies that actually have racing cost quite a bit more to film. I wonder if his decision was related to budget.

(I bet it would cost less to make a racing movie with modern F1 cars as you could just use the real thing. I don’t know that many people who would be willing to risk a bunch of vintage 1976 F1 cars.)

Mastadge October 4, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Wind wasn’t Howard, it was from the excellent Carroll Ballard, best known for his animal movies (The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, Fly Away Home, Duma). And here’s some trivia for the Six Degrees factor: it was Ballard’s work as photographer of the Star Wars desert scenes that caught Francis Ford Coppola’s eye and led to Coppola hiring Ballard to direct Stallion.

wjw October 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Well hell, Mastadge is right. I wonder how that factoid went astray?

Shash October 5, 2013 at 3:08 am

I suspect that Howard was trying to get away from the foolishness that was “Driven”. After all, racing is so much more than its crashes and most racing movies don’t show depth of a racer’s character or the technical and safety ends of it.
I agree with you that it is too dry for a mass audience in this country at least (where there are fewer F1 fans than Europe) but I thought it was awesome. But then, I might be biased….I am not just a huge road racing fan, but have been volunteering in the sport for over 30 years.

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