Ron Howard was, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a reliable director for slick, entertaining, broadly styled, forgivably shallow fare that pretty much defined mainstream Hollywood cinema on a median grade, offering some talent for spectacle, homey emotionalism, and snappy old-fashioned theatricality. As such Howard stood alongside Robert Zemeckis as a likeable sub-contractor to the Spielberg-Lucas oligarchy, but both Howard and Zemeckis were ruined as they got pretentious and earned proximity to Oscars. Howard’s astonishingly tatty Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind (2001) proved a mere opener to a weak decade’s work punctuated by a director, once appreciated for his lack of affectations, suddenly picking up a lot of modish tics, like handheld camerawork and incomprehensibly edited action scenes, as well as a predilection for unearned gravitas. These ruined a potentially neat Goth-Western, The Missing (2003), whilst excessive historical mendacity and a weak script undid Cinderella Man (2004), before Howard proved at length that Dan Brown’s plots are even stupider on screen than they are on the page. Rush has been greeted as a newly vivacious work and that is, at least, quite true. Although constituting, after a fashion, a follow-up to Howard’s sophomoric collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan for Frost/Nixon (2008), it’s closer in spirit to the ebullience of his career highpoint around the time of The Paper (1993) and Apollo 13 (1995), with which it shares delight in observing oversized personalities in high-pressure jobs, practically smacking his lips at the panoply of immodest pleasures such a subject provides.
The rivalry of Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the 1976 Grand Prix season is indeed the stuff of high drama, with of course Lauda’s infamous, terrible accident as a pivotal moment perhaps not just in that contentious year but in the modern sport. Hunt, remembered to many younger race fans as an amusingly truculent colour man to Murray Walker’s straight-shooting race commentaries prior to his death aged 45, offers the dashing cavalier to Lauda’s calculating, risk-averse sensibility. Or, at least, Morgan would have us believe in one of his familiar, skewed, compare-and-contrast-the-character-type diagrams, mixing in aspects of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s rivalry, and Michael Schumacher’s with Mika Hakkinen. Morgan’s writing always strikes me as far too eager to show off both his professional structural savvy and his Op-Ed-level insights. But at least here the characters are saucy, the action groovy, and the filming pitched on the same level of bright glossiness and baldly readable typeface as the cigarette sponsors that used to festoon ‘70s race cars. Howard, who has suggested a gift for exploring the working, or occasionally non-working relationship between humans and inanimate systems, machines, objects and what-not in his better work, especially Apollo 13, here lets this side of creativity loose, less in the cartoon-pornographic fashion of the Fast and Furious films’ explorations of high-speed mechanics, than with an anatomical interest that recalls Howard Hughes’ mix of worship and anxiety in exploring motors and mechanisms as worlds unto themselves in Hell’s Angels (1930), as well as John Frankenheimer’s documentary-influenced anatomy of racing cars in Grand Prix (1966).
Like Frankenheimer, Howard utilises technologies associated with sports coverage, but in a more systematised fashion: Howard constantly tries to invoke physical discomfort by using tiny helmet cameras to give colossal close-ups of his heroes’ faces as they contend with having their universe corralled into the tiniest of spaces and then sent flying superhuman speeds into situations where microseconds and nerve fibres stand between life and death. Anthony Dodd Mantle’s cinematography is exuberant throughout, particularly in a dazzling moment depicting a crash through which Lauda, racing in spite of agony and debilitation, must drive through and past with all his genius. Comparisons with Grand Prix, whose stature in this field still vastly overshadows what Howard can bring to it, only go so far: Frankenheimer and Saul Bass turned racing into a multifarious experiential journey, shifting from gruelling you-are-there sensations to poeticism, existentialism, impressionism and even abstraction, whereas Howard’s vision never feels too far from a draft for a decent Xbox driver simulator. But Howard stretches his legs in other ways, offering up surprising dashes of lyricism, even eroticism throughout, happily celebrating Hunt’s (Chris Hemsworth) sexual excess in montages without the usual tut-tut attitude, and giving Lauda (Daniel Brühl) an islet of carnal bliss with new wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) whilst swimming before he meets its opposite on that infamous corner of the Nürburgring.
Of course, subtlety isn’t Howard’s forte, nor Morgan’s, turning Lauda and Hunt’s friendly rivalry into Wicked with vroom-vroom, contrasting swaggering British playboy and efficient, strict Austrian with all the literalness of a bad pub joke, and recalling Howard’s despicable willingness to turn Max Baer into stock movie villain so his film would be more exciting. But this one maintains a knockabout attitude to its nominal characterisations, ending up with the pair united by respect, envy, and temperamental counterpoint, and Hemsworth and Brühl do an excellent job of indicating how aspects of their opposite number already live within themselves, waiting to break out. Lauda, quietly insulted and angered by his conservative family’s dismissal of his interests, burns with a competitive zeal he tries to comprehend by maintaining an exacting attitude towards it. But he reveals his inner Hunt when, beginning his courtship with Marlene whilst driving, he is encouraged by her and the two Italians whose car he’s driving, to cut loose and give a display of non-germane speed. Hunt’s Lauda-like focus is delivered by financial distress and the break-up of his brief whirlwind marriage with model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), who dumps him for Richard Burton, stripping his life back down to the essentialist creed of speed and daring.
Little of the film goes deeper than a Vanity Fair spread, but as with the average issue of that mag, there’s still the haute-couture colours to enjoy. Brühl, with his matinee looks dampened down by a pair of ratty dentures, has fun as Lauda, whilst Hemsworth gives his freest and easiest performance yet, confirming he’s maturing into a leading man of dexterity. Lara and Wilde are too talented for their roles, with Wilde particularly ill-served even in taking her best Dolly Bird accent for a brief spin before being returned to the garage, after her great turn in Drinking Buddies signalled she was moving out of this sort of part. But the two ladies do well anyway, whilst Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer appears briefly as one of Hunt’s many shags. Howard’s biggest real misstep is to dash too quickly through Lauda’s accident recovery and trauma, letting down the psychological story of drive and passion that transcends good sense in favour of the more literal, less interesting one. I recall as a kid seeing, on the TV, Lauda with his scars and pensive attitude during in his last couple of years racing, the dark side of his sport and his ambitions written all over his face. That less romantic, more difficult, but possibly more stirring tale remains untold here. The whole affair is more of a fun Sunday jaunt in the country than a Grand Prix event. But that’s good enough.