Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Rush (2013)

Winning Isn't Everything...
or
Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies in the Rear-View Mirror (They May be Closer Than They Appear)

The main reason I wanted to see Rush was that it has a script by Peter Morgan, whose work from The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, Hereafter* have all been thought-provoking, literate screenplays and one wondered how he could provide that in a racing film, a sub-genre focused more on visceral momentum and the visual and where the weakest sections have always been those outside of the cars and off-track.

This one, though, it completely opposite in the tradition of Howard Hawks' race-track movies. And it's all true (except for a lie or two). It tells the story of two (eventual) Formula 1 drivers, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), Austrian, teutonic, disciplined, engineer and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), British, louge, seat-of-your-pants, tactician. They couldn't be more different except that both want to be the best and will do anything, risk anything to get there.


And they're both damned good drivers.**

Both are bad boys in their own ways. Lauda comes from a prominent Austrian family, but does not want to go into the family business, which disowns any acceptance of Niki's ambitions to drive professionally. So, he finds a race-team going bankrupt, buys it cheap by cashing in his life insurance policy, and takes over, re-building the car's engine from scratch. Hunt knows a rich boy, Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) with money to throw away and a party every hour. In the film, the two despise each other immediately.  The first time Hunt sees Lauda at a Formula Two race (one of those examples of "a lie or two"), director Ron Howard throws a rainbow refraction from Hunt's POV, bringing a mysticism over the moment that might be a bit too much.


That first race, they bump and spin. Hunt can't pull himself back into the race, his engine conks out, but Lauda, with some difficulty, throws himself the right way and is able to race his way to victory. Hunt starts to berate Lauda about it, but the Austrian is dismissive—it was the car, not the driver, Lauda had the better car and was able to get back in. Hunt's still pissed, insults Lauda by saying he looks like a rat, then goes off and parties with Hesketh, the crew and any woman within arm's length, as is his habit.  It's the start of a rivalry that will have its up's and down's, but that is the character-arc that both drivers have, and will have throughout the entire movie. Their focused competition will push each of them to doing crazy things on and off the track.

It makes a good story. Except for a lie or two.

It may not seem like much, but it's the Ron Howard way to make movies. Like a good race-track, eliminate any bumps in the road that might add dimension, nuance, or raise a question in the mind that might distract. If you set up a joke, show the pay-off at the next cut. If there's a building-up montage, make sure you show the results first thing.  If you want to show the treadmill of being famous, put David Bowie's "Fame" on the soundtrack (released in 1975, it fits the period). 
A shot like this is used quite a bit: it makes you go "hmmm."

In Rush, there's no ambiguity, no wasted shot, not a moment of contemplation or self-doubt.  It runs the rule of every Howard movie (that I've seen, at least, which is all except two) of being so audience friendly that it barely needs an audience, as there is no room for interpretation. At all.

It's not manipulation (all movies are manipulative, even documentaries), so much as keeping it very, very simple—least-common-denominator simple. It makes a better movie to have Hunt and Lauda just despise each other throughout the movie until the crisis of Lauda's accident. And even then, the bantering between them has a nice nasty streak running through it. It would have completely messed up that story through-line if (say) Hunt and Lauda were closer than Morgan and Howard impress...which they were—they were flat-mates for awhile, and enough that Rush would have resembled The Odd Racing Couple if they had shown it—but that would have ruined the all or nothing, go for broke, all-in, simple kind of impression the film-makers are trying to evoke. If it feels good, why complicate it?  And Howard's films, even the depressing ones, are feel-good movies (I mean, A Beautiful Mind is about schizophrenia and he still managed to bring forth a teary-smile at the end...and won an Oscar for it!).

Really, this is just to increase my Internet "hits."
Olivia Wilde as model Suzy Miller—she's in the film for as long as you're looking at this picture.

So, what am I saying, that it isn't "arty" enough?  No. It's plenty arty, with a humorous set design and costuming that will make anyone under 30 think we were all mad (and we were, hey, but don't linger at the mirror, yourself). Howard and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he bounces between Lars von Trier and Danny Boyle, so of course it's arty), manage to shoot making left turns repeatedly interesting to look at, without becoming fetishistic about it (more Grand Prix than Le Mans, more Frankenheimer, less Katzin), and they have a tendency to repeat a lot of good shots, rather than trying to find every possible angle with which you can photograph a moving car.  So, there's a consistency there of quality over quantity. And the core of the story—of these two outliers, both unlikable but admirable, racing to the drumming of their own pistons, finding inspiration in each other and realizing it, makes it an interesting movie, and worth seeing.
Niki and James, when Lauda came back to racing six weeks after his accident.


*  He was also involved in the early stages of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Skyfall.

** Here's a Lauda quote (a real one) about Hunt:"We were big rivals, especially at the end of the [1976] season, but I respected him because you could drive next to him—2 centimeters, wheel-by-wheel, for 300 kilometers or more—and nothing would happen. He was a real top driver at the time." That's the sort of admiration Lauda would allow himself—an appreciation of undeniable skill.


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