Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush: Quite a ride

Rush (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content, brief drug use and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.27.13

Friends tell you what you want to hear. Enemies tell you what you need to know.

Director Ron Howard’s Rush isn’t merely the fact-based account of an intriguing sports rivalry; it’s also the most exciting auto racing movie to roar into theaters since 1971’s Le Mans ... which, given Steve McQueen’s passion for authenticity and the superb efforts of cinematographers René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser — not to mention a team of five (!) editors — is high praise indeed.

The calm before the storm: No love is lost between rival racers James Hunt (Chris
Hemsworth, foreground left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), each determined to
out-drive the other en route to a Formula 1 World Championship. But that isn't the
whole story by any means: Their saga is the stuff of sports legend.
No matter. Howard’s collaborators — cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill — are up for the challenge. They’re also given a sensational assist by sound designers Danny Hambrook and Markus Stemler, whose ear-splitting attention to detail delivers everything except the pungent, eye-watering stench of high-octane fuel. Which you’ll probably imagine anyway.

But while the visceral exhilaration is palpable, it’s mere backdrop; this film gets its emotional heft from the fascinating narrative crafted by British scripter Peter Morgan, whose well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Frost/Nixon and The Queen — not to mention his work on The Last King of Scotland, The Damned United and quite a few others — demonstrate considerable skill when it comes to sketching characters through well-composed dialogue.

James Simon Wallis Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth), British to the core, and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) meet — and immediately clash — as ambitious Formula 3 drivers. They couldn’t be more different: Hunt is a womanizing, hedonistic toff who wears flamboyant aristocratic superiority like a cloak, while Lauda is solemn, remote and blunt to the point of insolence. Hunt is the pluperfect London playboy, Lauda the Teutonic precision; neither apologizes for his behavior, or would think of doing so.

Hunt loves the champagne-hazed thrill of victory, and is happiest when posing for photographs as he clutches an award. Lauda quite famously gave his trophies to a local garage, as “payment” for having his car washed and serviced.

But they both take racing seriously, albeit from different sensibilities. Hunt is as bold and reckless on the track as in real life, embracing the challenge for its romantic, death-defying aura; Lauda, meticulous to a fault, calculates odds and works them to his favor. Hunt relies on the largess of sponsors he can impress; Lauda drives mechanics crazy by ordering design changes ... which inevitably prove advantageous.

As a result, Morgan’s script focuses on the attitude of racing, as much as the sport itself. At a time when drivers were expected to die every season — as Brühl’s Lauda informs us, in his dryly ironic, off-camera narration — professional racers truly were a breed apart. (It could be argued that NASCAR, with its ever-safer vehicles and protective body gear, has stripped some of the rogue spirit from auto racing.)

Casting director Nina Gold did a sensational job, as both Hemsworth and Brühl look, sound and move very much like the real Hunt and Lauda. The physical similarities are truly striking, but of course it’s deeper than that.

Anybody who thus far has dismissed Hemsworth as little more than a pretty face, based on bombastic fluff such as Snow White and the Huntsman and his ongoing role as the Asgardian Thor, needs to reassess; Hemsworth nails the blithe insolence of, say, Peter O’Toole in his prime. This portrayal of Hunt is charismatic to the point of bewitchery; we can’t help admiring the man despite his obvious superficiality.

And yet there’s fire in his eyes, as well. The glad-handing Hunt seems incapable of anything as boorish as genuine temper, and yet we suspect, based on the steel that Hemsworth's performance doesn’t quite conceal, that this guy’s fury would be breathtaking.

Rest assured, Morgan allows us a highly satisfying glimpse.

The Spanish-born Brühl is unlikely to be recognized on these shores, aside from his supporting performance in 2007’s Inglourious Basterds, but I suspect that’s about to change. His Lauda displays his ferret-faced features proudly, even defiantly, no doubt operating from the belief that one cannot be teased or humiliated by others, if you pre-emptively remove their ammunition. Lauda is chill psychology and intellectual arrogance, an attitude that Brühl conveys perfectly.

As a result, although Lauda is equally hard to like, he emerges here as the underdog ... even though, as the two men graduate to Formula 1 racing and engage in the very public antagonism that fueled press coverage during the early 1970s, he certainly doesn’t need the sympathy. When Lauda blasts past Hunt in order to win the 1975 World Championship, it seems a triumph of intellect over emotion. But of course Hunt, finishing fourth, isn’t about to slink off quietly. There’s always another season.

The rich fascination of Morgan’s script, and the marvelous subtlety of Hemsworth and Brühl’s performances, are best defined by our dawning realization that — somewhere along the line, almost without our awareness — enmity blossoms into respect. As the 1976 season begins, the two men still don’t like each other, but their mutual regard has shifted. Glances toward each other become more reflective, less hostile; clipped conversations are less contemptuous, more ... well ... collaborative.

Racing fans well remember what happened during that tempestuous 1976 season, and I’ll not spoil the suspense here, for the benefit of viewers lucky enough to come to this story cold. But that’ll be a difficult feat, since Lauda has been highly visible for the past month, and likely will remain so between now and Oscar season. Hunt, sadly if perhaps predictably, died from a heart attack in 1993, at the age of 45.

The supporting performances are equally strong, starting with this saga's significant women. Olivia Wilde, whose smoldering, come-hither sensuality literally drips off the screen, is well cast as free-spirited professional model Suzy Miller, whose jaw-dropping 1974 marriage to Hunt made headlines around the world. We’re certainly not surprised when this relationship doesn’t last, although Miller’s subsequent husband will raise your eyebrows.

Despite this, Wilde shades Miller generously, suggesting that she feels deep affection for Hunt, his glaring flaws notwithstanding.

Romanian-born Alexandra Maria Lara is even more engaging as Marlene, the woman who catches Lauda’s eye during a meet-cute sequence that Howard stages for maximum amusement. If it truly happened this way, you couldn’t imagine a better first encounter; either way, it’s a great movie moment.

Lara gets considerable screen time, and Marlene’s presence clearly changes Lauda. Their most powerful conversation also is the calmest, as Lauda reflectively confesses that happiness may have crippled him; henceforth, every time he squeezes into a race car, he’ll know that he has something to lose. The expression on Lara’s face, at this moment, is heartbreaking; we understand that Marlene suddenly wonders if loving her new husband is such a good thing after all.

Christian McKay is memorable as Lord Hesketh, the colorful racing enthusiast who bankrolls Hunt’s early career with a large inheritance. (Hesketh later became chief whip in the House of Lords, for John Major’s government.) Julian Rhind-Tutt is wholly convincing in his small role as Anthony “Bubbles” Horsley, Hunt’s chief mechanic; Pierfrancesco Favino delivers an engaging blend of admiration and frustration as Lauda’s Ferrari teammate, Clay Regazzoni.

Cinematographer Dod Mantle won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and his camerawork here is sensational. Quite inventive, as well, with cameras fastened to racers’ helmets, in order to place us, quite literally, in the drivers’ seats. Mantle also cross-cuts between dozens of camera set-ups, in order to convey the raw intensity of the racetrack footage; Howard, in turn, blends these many images for maximum excitement.

Howard has a gift for tackling well-known factual events that lose none of their suspense in his hands, despite our knowledge of what’s coming. I can think of no greater compliment, than the fact that he sends us from the theater wanting to know more about these subjects: the Apollo 13 miracle, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, James Braddock in Cinderella Man and now this engaging rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. (Lauda has written five books, and I suspect his sales figures are about to climb.)

Rush is a solid sports drama about two genuinely fascinating road warriors. Monday evening’s preview screening drew applause as the closing credits appeared, and I’m not the slightest bit surprised.

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