You might think champion of mediocrity Ron Howard couldn’t go wrong with a story as compelling as this, but I never underestimate his unswerving capacity for blandness. He is capable of diminishing the most promising of material. The BBC smartly got the drop on this big screen telling of James Hunt/Nicki Lauda rivalry with an excellent documentary following the 1976 Formula One season. Peter Morgan’s script starts much earlier, but its meat is much the same. I’m not sure the movie is quite up to the doc’s high standard, but it’s light years ahead of anything Howard has made recently.
He has flirted with better-than-average before, of course. Splash might just be his most wholly satisfying movie, one he delivered early in his directing career. But Richie Cunningham’s peak came with the back-to-back Apollo 13 and Ransom, as he boyishly struggled to prove he could tackle manly subjects. It’s tempting to suggest he should just stick to biopics, on the evidence of 13 and Rush. But it might be better to say he should just stick to biopics that don’t stop long enough for the cracks to show. His Best Director Oscar came for his sloppily fanciful A Beautiful Mind, a film so intellectually arid and emotionally patronising you just knew the Academy wouldn’t be able to resist it. He followed it with a couple of so-so based-on-real-events films, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon. The latter in particular, while perfectly serviceable, illustrated that Howard has no fever for storytelling, lacks any passionate views and is so devoid of nuance that subtlety must be overtly written into his scripts; at which point it no longer is (subtle).
Howard’s all-American wholesomeness and complete lack of guile* means that, whatever his basic technical grasp, limited the genres he can make a success from. It should be no surprise that his well-meaning pictures, whatever their merits, have a sliver of genuineness to them; they foreground his soggy, sentimental nature (Cocoon, Parenthood). In contrast, when he attempts satire (EDtv) he lacks the will to flow through. When he is asked to fire his imagination (Willow, The Da Vinci Code, The Grinch) the results are insipid at best, garbage at worst. As long as Ronny sticks to the straight and narrow then, and doesn’t exceed his very real limitations, he has a good chance of making something half decent.
The best thing he does in Rush is to get out of the way. The real stars are Anthony Dod Mantle’s invigorating, eye-popping cinematography, which does an incredible job of masking how relatively cheap the movie is, and the performances of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as Hunt and Lauda. I should note that the editing of the race scenes is impressive, although I’m not sure if that’s less to do with Howard’s regular editors Daniel P Hanley and Mike Hill and more a result of Mantle’s penchant for grabbing shots in the most unlikely of places; he wants to get you right in there with the cars, inside helmets, even within wheels. It’s Mantle who ensures there’s immediacy to the images. But fair play to Hanley and Hill; this time they show that they are no slouches at putting it all together.
Morgan’s script plays up the polar opposite, chalk and cheese aspects of Hunt and Lauda. Both can be shits, in their personal lives and professionally. Hunt is the playboy, racing for the thrill of it, and Hemsworth perfectly captures his charisma (many of his lines don’t need inventing). Lauda ‘s the buttoned-down mandroid. Racing is a technical, unemotive exercise. As a clash of personalities, it’s too good to true so it really shouldn’t need to crowbar in the point.
There are some strong scenes between Hemsworth and Olivia Wilde (as Hunt’s wife Suzy Miller), but Morgan is rarely able to resist saying it rather than showing it; Hunt’s interview with the press, when he delivers emotional payback to Suzy for running off with Richard Burton, is far better conceived than the rather obvious outbursts and dinner date split that precede it. It may have been prudishness on Howard’s put that the movie stints on Hunt’s, but it’s quite likely that if he had gone there he would have felt the need to offer some moralising about the long-term debilitating effects of such behaviour.
Lauda’s perfunctory registry office marriage to Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) is a moment where Morgan manages to show the bond between them, in spite of his emotional remoteness, and there’s a charming scene in which a couple of rapt fans implore Lauda to give to take their car for a spin. He obliges, but drives like an old lady, until Marlene persuades him to show his mettle. And he does, overcoming his ingrained caution to impress the girl. So later it’s a shame that the incessant cuts to Marlene fretting over his races teeter towards cliché (sometimes less fidelity better serves the drama). Despite the variable material, the two leads do fine work. If they are unable to overcome Howard’s literal approach, they nevertheless embody their characters. I was particularly impressed with Hemsworth, mainly because he’s been typecast as brooding man hulks lately.
Peter Morgan apparent disinterest in understatement may be a good match for Ronny in terms of sensibility, or maybe Howard just seizes on the script’s least aspects and enlarges them. I don’t think so, however; Morgan may be an awards darling, but often his choices are less than sophisticated. While playing up the rivalry between the two is entirely understandable, the decision to spell this tension out (again) in a contrived and over-scripted airport scene ends the movie on a stodgy, rather dissatisfying, note. It’s one of the few times Hemsworth and Brühl clearly struggle to find their footing. It’s also classic Howard; less spoon-feeding the viewer than sticking the utensil all the way down their throat.
Some of the narrative inventions follow course (Hunt’s altercation with a journalist suggest the makers weren’t confident that he would be sufficiently sympathetic; an engineer suggests to Hunt at a crucial moment in the race that there would be no shame if he eased off now) and the editing choices (clichéd cuts to friends and family glued to TV sets during the races, images of Lauda’s lady love flashing before his eyes when he considers his choices) reinforce this; an inability to trust your audience to get it.
Nevertheless, most of the time we are pulled along, rather than overly conscious of the lack of artistry and finesse behind Howard’s choices. This might be the most efficient he has been as a director; he has fine-tuned his movie, such that the results are lean and punchy (think of any previous Formula One movie, and a lack of bloat will likely not be a defining quality). But it leaves me wanting what is absent. For instance, I’d like to see a Michael Mann F1 film; he’d imbue it with the grace and visual poetry foreign to a Ronnyfest.
There are other areas where Morgan and Howard might have provided greater context, but on balance they may have made the correct decisions in terms of maintain focus on the main story. Even though I know needs (and budget) must, I felt short-changed on the racing front at times. What is done is done highly inventively (and, aside from some CGI flames, the joins between live action and special effects are seamless) but we never reach the point where we witness a full, thrilling race or glimpse that hypnotic quality as the drivers go lap after lap (the closest we come is hearing Simon Taylor’s commentary). Individual slices of racing tension are proffered but we are denied a full feast.
Similarly, Morgan fails to really build the progress of the season; all you know is that Lauda was ahead, there was a horrific accident, Hunt caught up, and then there was the Japan finale (likewise, aside from Lauda’s teammate, they may as well have been the only two guys on the racetrack). There are brief snatches of the politics of the race, and the dirty tricks employed to get ahead are fascinating. Maybe joining these dots has been sacrificed for the sake of momentum, but there’s a sense that the picture didn’t need much to achieve drive away with crucial added substance. The result is that when there is a by the by, it is distracting rather than an added bonus; we hear about the six-wheeled Tyrell but the immediate consequence is that we want to see it too. As for the depiction of key moments, the Lauda crash, and his recovery, are appropriately gruesome and toe curling (the scenes with his bandages, the vacuuming of his lungs). And his six-week recovery is every bit as amazing, no matter how many times you hear about it.
I’m all for doing what is needed to make a true story work as a fiction but sometimes the dramatic licence grates a bit. Hunt only realises Lauda is back in action on the day of the race? Did he not have to qualify? And the Japan-set final race of the season doesn’t appear to gain anything by adding rainfall throughout. It might underline Lauda’s decision, but his comment in the BBC documentary that he would make the same choice again is more powerful because it denies the benefit of hindsight. In contrast, something is off with the timing of Hunt not realising he has won the championship; it is factually correct, but plays without any impact. The coda, as mentioned, is weak, even more so the bringing us up to date, as a hurried attempt to cover all the bases.
There are some strong supporting turns. Maria Lara is especially good, although Olivia Wilde is not so well catered for as Hunt’s girlfriend/wife; she has a couple of good scenes, but her character is underdeveloped, leaving it to her free-hanging ’70s fashions to make an impression. Presumably Howard is a big Green Wing fan as both Stephen Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt appear (as Hunt’s successive engineers). I can’t remember a note of Hans Zimmer’s score, which either means he allowed the revs to speak for themselves or it was one of his throw-it-in-the-pile, production-line efforts.
It wouldn’t be feasible for me to wholeheartedly endorse a Ron Howard movie. But Rush more than lives up to its title (uninspired though that title may be). How much of this is down to his cinematographer, well… Ron can feel safe reverting to type with another Robert Langdon escapade now.
*Addendum 20/02/23: At least, that’s what he wants you to think.