Well oiled machines
It’s kind of difficult to appreciate Hollywood. Sure, it’s the biggest of the movie industries. Sure, most people watch Hollywood movies. Some people might think that Hollywood movies are the only ones worth watching. But for most folks in the movie blogosphere, Hollywood is a whole heaping pile of mess. The stories are trite. The ideas non-existent. Every concession is made to the lowest common denominator willing to spit up the cash. As I said, it’s a mess. But what isn’t a mess is the technical side of the Hollywood tradition.
The rapid cutting is schizophrenic, the handheld camera is epileptic and the generic drabness of the tonal palette is mindlessly depressing. But still, the technical competence of Hollywood is about the best in the world. It takes skill to take those horrible elements and churn out something bland. The movies are still bland, but damn if they’re not competent at it.
So let’s talk about Hollywood competence and Ron Howard. Howard is a Hollywood lifer and there’s a strange movie nerd consensus that he’s a bad filmmaker. This is actually kind of bullshit. Whatever you may think about A Beautiful Mind or The Da Vinci Code, the man helmed Apollo 13. And I think most of us can agree: Apollo 13 is awesome. Ron Howard’s big problem isn’t competence, its consistency. Without strong guiding principles to anchor and direct his projects there’s a tendency for them to turn to mediocrity. But, as I said, Howard’s a lifer. And as much as we complain about Hollywood, you don’t get to be a lifer without the ability to get the job done.
Rush is a movie where everyone gets the job done and it is very, very good. Why? Because we’re in the hands of professionals doing good work. And if I praise that overmuch it’s because it’s been much rarer recently than it has any right to be.
Rush tells the dramatized story of the real world philosophical conflict between the hedonist James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the stoic Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) that played out over the course of the 1976 calendar year. Also some cars go fast and stuff and they call it Formula One racing.
I kid, but Rush’s peculiarity (for a sports rivalry movie) is its focus on the rivalry and not the sport. The movie’s as much character study as sports drama.
Hemsworth’s Hunt is all cocky masculinity and, appropriately, his philosophy is tied to the power and glory of sport, the cheating of death and the pushing of extremes. And the whole thing’s heavily romanticized. “It’s like being knights!” enthuses Hemsworth in his most bluntly revealing line.
“Happiness is the enemy,” says Bruhl in his. The son of a powerful corporate family, Lauda is as stark a contrast to Hunt as can be conceived. He takes up racing not because it thrills him, but because it is what he’s best at. His mind is a cold, calm regiment whose greatest weapons are precision and discipline. The two even differ physically: the gold-maned Adonis Hemsworth contrasted with the mutedly square Bruhl acting behind protruding chompers and the worst haircut.
And where other movies may have tried to reconcile the difference through a safe middle-of-the-road choice, Rush takes its characters’ ideas deathly seriously. Hunt is best when totally unleashed, pounding his mind and body against whatever barriers there are. Lauda excels when he’s the most clinically detached, calculating every move. And the movie never really allows one side to triumph over the other. Hunt and Lauda are distinct individuals. They might develop, but even the crucible of the 1976 Formula One Grand Prix can’t change them.
Oh yes, the sports bit. Formula One by its very nature has always struck me as a bit Continental aristocratic. It’s about absurdly expensive cars that have been stripped of every reasonable engineering part and sent hurtling down windy tracks at absurd speeds. And as Lauda mentions every so often, in 1976 the risk of accident and injury was approximately 20 percent. Naturally, it’s stupid, riveting stuff. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t really do much with the races themselves, moving them along in a flurry of shiny edits that cut from one mechanical glinty doohicky to another. What Howard does do with the cars though is make a strange visual case for transhumanism. One of Bruhl’s biggest scenes is about assembling himself. And that includes his racing gear. Similarly, Hunt’s personality infects his vehicle, when his brain functions are in tatters, so are his tires.
And as I said in the beginning, it’s all executed very well. But, this being a Shoumik review, what would we do without a little bit of kvetching? And Rush’s big problem is that it keeps trying to get at its conflict in metaphoric ways instead of just putting Hemsworth and Bruhl in a room and have them go at it. The races are fun and all, but the first time the two share the screen for any extended period of time comes one hour and forty seven minutes into a two hour movie. It’s also, to my mind, the best scene. For the first time we have a long back and forth about the differences in character between the two men. It’s like a verbal sparring match with both feinting and flourishing to the best of their ability. It’s enthralling and honestly, the film could have used much more of that.
But the overall takeaway from Rush is high quality professionalism. Howard and his crew are firing on all cylinders. Hemsworth and Bruhl circle each other with vitality and zest. And the movie’s entertaining while also remembering the necessity of a brain. It’s not often I get around to praising the Hollywood system. But I’d do it more if their standard was closer to Rush.