It would be easy to assume, from his roles on television’s Arrested Development, that Ron Howard was and is not that serious a director. Yet a directorial career including Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and Frost/Nixon disproves this instantly – and his new film Rush lives up to that side of curriculum vitae; another Willow it is not.
Howard here turns his lens to the many rivalries of Formula One racing, and picks out the battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth finding a role that accommodates growing his hair for Thor duty) and Niki Lauda (an award-hyped Daniel Brühl – the sniper from Inglorious Basterds) in the 1970s. Another great racing rivalry was examined in detail in the stellar documentary Senna, though Rush is not playing the same angles; both films have looming disasters to bookend their narratives with, but Rush is not nearly so serious a film. It features racing scenes which are thrilling and tense, but the overall tone is quite distinct, less of a cautionary tale.
Set in the seventies as it is, outfits are often amusing, unbuttoned shirts all over the place, but the film for the most part avoids the goofiness which can go with that era. Hemsworth’s Hunt is the carefree risk-taker in this tale of opposition, and Brühl as Lauda is the stickler for rules and safety – will one be shown as superior, or will they each learn from the other’s flaws? The film uses tried and tested methods to set its story up, but avoids too much preaching of the characters’ weaknesses. Their contrasting private lives are shown without explicit comment, though Brühl opens and closes the film with voiceover to have the first and last words.
A principal question in a film about the dangers of high-speed racing is the quality of its race scenes, and here Rush does not disappoint. The cars feel as unsafe as we are continually reminded that they are, and the sense of speed is generally impressive. There is an unfortunate but understandable tendency towards CGI, but while it does take away from some of the immediacy of the scenes, this is made up for in other areas. In Senna some of the most thrilling footage came from onboard cameras, first-person rides through the tracks, and this angle is used a couple of times to great effect in Rush. The film does not shy away from the crashes which at that time were an intermittent inevitability – the crunches of cars hitting walls and each other are disturbing, and the gory wounds inflicting on various drivers more so. It is telling that the lead-ups to both the fated race at the Nürburgring and the finale in Japan are as tense as any thriller, though the film as a whole does not feel like it fits that genre; the rain-soaked slow-motion gives you plenty of time to worry, as Lauda does, how on earth anyone could drive in those conditions.
The evolution of Formula One racing in the twentieth century is as narrative-rich as a series of novels, with rivalries and tension, full of small, engrossing stories. Ron Howard et al. have chosen one story which progresses almost as though someone was directing it for maximum tension, and successfully transplanted it onto the screen, in a manner welcoming to those unfamiliar with the story, but engrossing even if the conclusion is known.