There have been lots of racing pictures over the years and no one has been able to crack the genre. Ron Howard’s aggressively told history of the 1970’s Nikki Lauda/James Hunt rivalry is arguably the most accessible. Though it’s a robust sports genre film told with maximum 70’s razzle-dazzle, it fails to find the humanness in its two characters beyond the surface of their ying/yang personalities to elevate it to the top of Howard's esteemed filmography.
Rush (2013) dir. Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruehl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde
By Alan Bacchus
Ron Howard has always been one of those invisible directors, adaptable to all genres, without a distinct visual style, and yet able to consistently to make well-produced and successful mass-market films. Conservative in subject matter, also form and technique, he exemplifies the old days of adaptable studio directors such as Howard Hawks and Victor Fleming.
And yet, after all these years we find an older Ron Howard making a film outside the studio system in Britain without the studio safety net. Rush is the most independent film he’s made in years. There’s also a sense of a frugality with this production, a conscious attempt to be creative with composition and editing to make its $38million budget look like $100million. This is probably the lowest budgeted film he’s made in years and yet the most ambitious narratively and technically, a creative challenge which Howard admirably succeeds in confronting. There’s a spark of energy and verve in this picture we’ve never really seen by Howard, ever.
Howard and his writer Peter Morgan ambitiously chart the ten year rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, a British Playboy F1 racer and his prickily Austrian counterpart who moved in and out of each other’s lives fueling some of the most dramatic moments in the sport.
Starting in 1970 we see the pair riding the F3 circuit. Their personality differences are already front and centre. If anything Hunt’s playboy lifestyle is hit hard on the nose. His cool swath of blonde locks and statuesque physique are imposing enough. But we also see Hunt banging nurses waitresses, racing groupies all over the place. Laude is characterized as the opposite, also in extremis. A tightly-wound gearhead who pushes his crew to work over the tiniest details of his car designed to maximize speed. As played by Daniel Bruehl, he’s a dope with the ladies, cold, robotic and obsessed with statistics. Laude is opened up early on in one of the film’s best scenes when he courts his future wife (Lara) by hitchhiking in rural Italy and impressing her with his mad driving skills. A coy courtship scene enhanced by the humourous Italian racing superfans giggling in the back. This is the skill of Ron Howard the studio director, conscious to layer his key emotional beats with humour and action.
The story settles in on 1976, the monumentous year which finds both drivers at the height of their careers and battling for the title race by race. A number of impossibly dramatic events occur throughout the year too almost dramatic to be true, leading up to a finale/climax told with all the rousing bombast of the best sports films.
Where the film stumbles is the ‘speed’ with which the film races along. We’ve never seen a Ron Howard film move along with such pace, and unfortunately by hopscotching through races, events, girlfriends over the years we’re never in a scene long enough to attach ourselves emotionally to these guys. Hunt and Laude are characterized by type for most of the film until the 1976 race year when we finally find the humanity beneath their characters. The film also stumbles after the dramatic final race by dropping in a Boogie Nights-esque party montage when the film should have freeze-framed and faded to black. Very strange.
Howard’s technical acumen with the language of cinema has not missed a step. Even with less money at his disposal his creativity in recreating the period racing sequences is marvelous. Unlike the technical realism of, say, John Frankenheimer’s massive production of Grand Prix, wherein he strapped 70mm cameras to race cars during a real F1 race, Howard’s clever use of expressionistic camera angles and deft special effects puts us into the time and place. We see Howard working for the first time with digital dynamo DP Anthony Dod Mantle. His nimble work with Danny Boyle and Lars von Trier shines through and aids in the film’s aggressive pacing.
Thus Rush works on a number levels of cinema, its sharp adaptation of the sports movie model into the difficult racing milieu, but also the new modus operandi for studio veteran Ron Howard to find new inspiration with less resources in the independent world.