At the Count of One We Both Accelerate, by Scott Nye
In considering Ron Howard, and his Rush, I was driven back deep into the Battleship Pretension archives, way back to episode 86, long before anyone started putting up with my nonsense around here (though Tyler saying “Scott n’ I” did make me wonder if perhaps I’ve been traveling through time), in which Tyler and David discussed journeyman directors. David came up with a launching point – “It’s someone with a great mastery of the craft, but not necessarily some kind of unifying or artistic vision” – which is a pretty solid place to start, though I will also add that these types of filmmakers tend to adapt to the times and styles in which they work, rather than try to form them.
Howard is particularly adept at this, and watching Rush, I couldn’t help but get initially excited by how unlike a Ron Howard movie it is. It moves at a breakneck speed, there’s a lot of humor and more outsized characters than those with which he typically deals, and he has some fun towards upending his slightly uptight, conservative-friendly style. Early on, a woman retains her bra while she and Chris Hemsworth have Movie Sex, but then is shown completely topless in the shower immediately after. Later, just as we anticipate Hemsworth calling another character a “cunt,” a bit of microphone feedback cuts in, suggesting a familiar bit of self-censorship, only for it to fade away in time for his insult to be heard loud and clear.
And yet, make no mistake about it, this is a Ron Howard film in every single way that counts. It’s unapologetically upfront about its character motivations and conflicts, and more than a little maudlin by the end. Moreover, while Howard’s style here is fresh for him, it’s kind of old hat if you’ve seen Argo, Lovelace, Factory Girl, Milk, The Runaways, or any other number of films that used that affected, “faded,” bleached-out “hey man it’s the 70s” look. Your mileage on all of this may vary. Me, I actually liked Cinderella Man, and I actually liked Rush, Instagram filer and all.
But I guess we should address what the damn thing’s even about. Way way back in the 1970s, Formula 1 drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) enjoyed a season-long rivalry that would end up permanently altering both of their lives in ways both big and small. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Damned United, The Queen, Howard’s Frost/Nixon) hits the “rivalry makes a person better” theme a little hard towards the end, which is only disappointing because he and Howard illustrate it so well throughout the rest of the picture.
Correction – he and Howard, and Hemsworth and Brühl. As enthused as Howard’s direction is, as sharp and concise as Morgan’s screenplay is, the whole thing would sink without actors as capable as these two. All of the star appeal that Hemsworth displayed as Thor is even more accentuated here, as a guy who does pretty much everything he does in an effort to feel young and vital and liked and hopefully a little lusted after. Howard never really asks him to complicate this portrait in an active way – there’s a scene showing his effortless charm at a press conference, while he compulsively fiddles with a lighter below the table, out of sight, that could have provided a duality to his work, if not for the fact that Howard shows each side in totally different shots – but what can I saw, he’s so damn charming.
Niki makes the perfect foil to all this; where James is a bundle of energy directed towards the closest, most thrilling outlet, Niki is a set of precision-engineered component parts, every decision calculated towards the goal of victory. Both have a natural instinct for racing, but for Niki, it seems like almost a last resort. He says at one point that if he could make more money some other way, he’d do that, as though he simply analyzed what he was capable of and was left with nothing else. There is a certain desperation with which he clings to racing, and his obsessive nature seems as much a reflection of a need to hold onto the one thing he can do well as anything else. Brühl (who most, including me, know as Fredrick Zoller, the Nazi war hero, in Inglourious Basterds) is really terrific, even long before he gets the space to do some more challenging physical work. Almost permanently keeping his head tilted down and his eyes forward, he looks like a racehorse more than a driver, eyes constantly on the next challenge, the next obstacle. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he has most of the film’s best lines.
And really, get those two guys working in tandem, even in the scenes they don’t share (Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill’s editing keeps them forever linked, never mind just moving fast enough that you rarely have time to miss either), is more than enough to carry the film. I’m not wild about a couple more belabored choices at the very end, there are a few loose strands that could have been more effectively incorporated (as well-crafted as the final race is, there is a lot of important baggage each character brings to it that ends up just kind of sitting there), and while the habit of just skating over James’ and Niki’s flaws certainly makes the experience a little more palatable, it also feels at times like Morgan and Howard are just softening their leads. But boy do they nail the joy of a fast car, of hitting the prime of your life with little standing in your way, the fierce drive that only competition can bring, and the way a spark of passion can carry you for years. Never mind the appeal of a beautiful woman asking you to drive as fast as you can.