Sunday, November 10, 2013

Like: Rush

In a long line of Ron Howard films "based on a true story," Rush has the benefit of being among the more thoroughly alive.  It's the type of content that lends itself naturally to the cinematic -- Formula One racing, roaring international crowds, 70s style, bantering competitors -- and requires no outside knowledge from its audience.  You don't have to be engaged with Formula One to appreciate what Rush has to offer, you don't even have to care that its characters are stand-ins for real-life figures.  Howard handles the content prepared for his audience's complete ignorance. We're introduced to the characters as bright, cartoon figures through peppy voice-over narration: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a British playboy whose daring, competitive edge is trumped only by his penchant for booze, vice, and women.  Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), meanwhile, is a sharp-accented Austrian who approaches driving with a strategy, an interest in scientific precision, and a cold, aloof nature that does little to endear him to his colleagues and crew.

There's something of the high school rivalry in Lauda and Hunt's relationship, and Howard draws that out deftly from the opening scenes.  Hunt, for all his charisma, is the reckless quarterback who abuses his ability and power and responds violently to ideas that this "rat"-faced other could somehow close in on his turf.  Lauda is the practicing nerd: he sticks to the playbook, crunches the numbers, follows the rules, his routine, and ascends quickly through the ranks.  The two characters feed off of each other's energies, at times out for blood, at others consciously aware they need their rivalry to achieve greatness.  What Rush manages to its great credit is that it never quite seems to favor one driver over the other. The screen is shared here, and the audience's sympathies dart between characters.  It would be all too easy to paint Hunt as the charming daredevil hero (especially with 'Thor' behind him) and Lauda as a Die Hard-style villain, or, to let Lauda's underdog status win out over Hunt's arrogance.  Howard does neither, but shows each in the other's shadow, seething and competitive even when one is clearly at the top. 

It's an fascinating turn, but in some ways the split between characters works to cheapen the overall impact of the film.  Though each is rounded out enough to play both hero and villain, to suggest some sort of dynamic edge to their character, Hunt and Lauda seemed somehow crafted for the purpose of a sports rivalry story, like living cartoons repeatedly pitted against one another.  Though professional obsession can indeed block out the nuances of a full life, Rush has to split the focus between two characters, dwell in the space they inhabit, and fill in the blanks in broad strokes. Consequently, the background characters become flat shadow figures we're meant to color with our own meaning.  Female characters, especially, seem to serve as shallow stand-ins for the idea of a support network or some trace of an outside life.  Weirdly, this is how the film should be.  The other characters do need to be suppressed, perhaps even more than they already are. Rush is about two things: rivalry and racing. When it's working, it's doing both of them brilliantly, and the racing scenes are, of course, perhaps the number one reason to actually see the film.  They're smartly staged, and deftly shot (I can't be the only one who thinks this and not that dog book should warrant the title The Art of Racing in the Rain), all big-budget raw style in a film that reads small. When it's not working, though, Rush reminds you of what it is: an overblown, overrated affair about two loudmouths, an intimate story blown up by Hollywood into a clash of the glaring titans.

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