High on Velocity
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… to feel one of this year’s truly unique experiences, a racing film and biopic that distinguishes itself with a fierce integrity of character.
Avoid it… and go to one of the many knock-off and franchise blockbusters currently running unique characters if fresh experiences are not your cup of tea.
“It’s just a little coffin, really, surrounded by high-octane fuel all around — for all intents and purposes, it’s a bomb on wheels.”
So does James Hunt describe his Formula One racer in one early scene of Ron Howard’s Rush. It’s not the only time during the film when the dangerous nature of the sport is singled out. The characters themselves seem almost obsessed with the notion of risk, discussing it often and openly, as though by merely mentioning the possibility of their demise they might stave it off for another day.
Rush focuses on the famous rivalry between the aristocratic Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and British firebrand James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) between 1970 and 1976. Fans of race history probably know the story of the 1976 race that pitted them against each other, but I won’t spoil it here. I will say, though, that it is the specter of risk that keeps Rush focused on its characters rather than its races. Which is just as well – movies about racing are hard to film successfully, with the closest probably being the Steve McQueen vehicle Le Mans in 1971. Rush is more interested in drive and motivation, obsession even. It’s a human story told amongst the roar of engines, with the imagined scent of fuel and sweat thick in the air.
Ron Howard has a knack for making films about unusual characters (his A Beautiful Mind, about paranoid schizophrenic John Nash, was a major success in 2001), and Rush draws upon those talents considerably. Neither Lauda nor Hunt is particularly likeable. Hunt is a braggart and a drunkard, a self-characterized “bad-boy” playboy who has no interest in ever cleaning up. Lauda is cold and methodical, a genius about engines who seems almost completely uninterested in human relationships. Lauda’s portrayal in particular, with his obsession with vehicles, poor eye contact, and inability to understand when he’s insulted someone almost seems to suggest Asperger’s.
The screenplay starts slow, with a docudrama format that is more interested in relaying facts and details than in driving the story forward. Not knowing much of the facts surrounding the two racers, I found myself about midway through the film wondering if it was ever going to pick up. But somewhere near the end of the film’s first half and the beginning of its second, there is a turning point.
Film criticism requires by its very nature a certain detachment, but for all my trying I could not maintain such a reserved mindset for the duration of the film. I felt involved, and though I’m not usually the vocal type during my movie going, I found myself laughing, cheering and crying openly. I was, despite all expectations, affected in an undeniable way.
The characters, for their own part, came alive – flawed as they were, they seem even now, a week after seeing the film for the first time, as living people I once met. This is truer for Lauda than for Hunt – as well-written as the role of James Hunt is, it sorely stretched the range of Chris Hemsworth’s acting skill. No, it is the Spanish-born German actor Daniel Brühl who is the real star here. He has taken a character who is on the surface snobbish and abrasive and has made him wholly human. If there is any justice in the world, Brühl will receive an Academy nomination for Best Actor this year.
Anthony Dod Mantle deserves special mention for his cinematography. He has shown a talent for innovative camera use in films as different as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Antichrist (2009). In Rush, he uses a combination of wide establishing shots with close-cut special effects shots from inside the racing cars – sometimes even of the engines themselves – to give the impression to the audience of being physically involved in the race, as opposed to seeming shot from the bleachers, as racing films often tend to be. This seems to be intercut with historical archive footage at some moments, although I suppose it’s a testament to the film that I could not always tell what was genuine historical footage and what was simply intended to appear as it. The final race in particular, set during a rainy day in Tokyo, has some particularly effective shots of cars plowing through rain sheets so thick that they almost seem solid. Surely they must have seemed so to the racers.
Most films are simply plot and character, a collection of frames placed one after the other to give the illusion of movement. These films are enjoyable, or they are not. But every once in a while one encounters a film with a soul, with a life that seems all its own. Film enthusiasts will know what I’m talking about.
Rush is, more than anything, an experience. Not the most unique one ever filmed, or one that works in every scene, but one wholly its own. As a film, it’s not without its flaws, but as an experience, it’s not one I’m likely to ever forget.