Thursday, October 10, 2013

Face Value: Ron Howard's Rush

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard's Rush

Like many people who have spent their entire adult lives, and then some, working in Hollywood, Ron Howard has a frame of reference shaped far more by movies than real life experience or history. As a child actor, Howard made a career out of gazing, in awe and worshipful confusion, at those who had mastered adult life, and as a successful, middle-aged movie director, that’s still his specialty. This can be a problem when he insists on making movies about people who have one foot in common, everyday experience, set in a world that is meant to be our own. I don’t remember ever having had a worse time at the movies than Backdraft (1991), his battling-firefighter-brothers movie, with a story thread about political corruption and a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure; the movie had a lot of problems to choose from, but the one at its core was its embarrassing, confident assumption that everyone still feels about firemen the way they did when they were eight years old. (If it had been released ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, it might have been acclaimed for its Zola-like realism.)

Howard’s new movie, Rush, is about Formula One race car drivers. It’s his most entertaining movie since the one about astronauts, Apollo 13, which may have something to do with the fact that its heroes are people for whom making those in civilian life feel as if they’re eight years old is part of their job description. It’s lighter, faster, and trashier than the solemnly engaging Apollo 13, maybe because it’s possible to make an argument that astronauts have a job that’s worth doing. Rush was written by Peter Morgan, the docudrama specialist who previously collaborated with Howard on the movie version of his play Frost/Nixon  a project that was in some ways a perfect fit for Howard, since it called for a director capable of gazing, with some degree of awe and worshipful confusion, on David Frost. Rush is set in the 1970s and deals with the rivalry between two top-dog drivers, the glamorously sexy, low-born thrill seeker James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the methodical, self-possessed gearhead and German control freak Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The script includes deep thoughts about the nature of competition, and how one man needs his opposite number to drive him to be the best, but the movie is really about stardom, and about wondering whether one means of achieving it has more integrity, and ultimately means more, than another. It’s also about ‘70s hair.

Hemsworth’s Hunt is, at least as much as his Thor, a natural god, set apart from mere mortals by his height and good looks, and the special glow that not giving a shit confers on some people. (He throws up before every race, which suggests some deeper layer of anxiety that’s never explored or acknowledged; it may just be the moviemakers’ way of trying to make him seem just the teensiest bit vulnerable.) Legendary among his colleagues not just for his prowess on the track but for being “an immortal fuck” in bed, he’s the guy who stands out in a room and the one everyone wants to party with. He and Lauda – who Hunt cruelly, and repetitiously, derides for being rat-faced – both spin out during a Formula Three race, with Hunt coming back to take the win, setting up their rivalry. Lauda, who understands the value of money, literally buys his way into Formula One, then goes on to become a champion through his thorough understanding of the machines he drives. Hunt teams up with the dissolute rich boy Lord Hesketh (the buoyant Christian McKay), who is in the sport for the fun of it, and is left high and dry when the money runs out and Hesketh, who has derided the idea of sponsorship as vulgar, is forced to close shop. He comes roaring back, of course, and even lectures Lauda on being too serious, too hard-working, for thinking too much: he accuses him of destroying “the beauty” of the sport by not being a charismatic wastrel and operating purely on instinct and adrenaline. Of course, each of these guys thinks the other one has had it easy, because each has a surplus of what the other doesn’t have.

Howard shoots all this in a bright, glossy, highly caffeinated style that makes the period look like a celebrity gossip magazine on a speed cycle. The women – Olivia Wilde as the model who practically goes from her first meeting with Hunt to their celebrity wedding, and Alexandria Maria Lava as the socialite with whom Lauda finally sneaks off to a simple courthouse service – look as breathtakingly beautiful, frame by frame, as anyone has ever looked in movies. Howard isn’t content with having the actresses look as if their close-ups ought to have Roy Lichtenstein’s signature in a corner of the frame, though; he also cuts from Wilde and Hemsworth’s initial flirtation to a couple of guys gawking at her photo in the newspaper, next to a headline identifying her as a “TOP MODEL,” so that we’ll understand that she’s not just one of the most gorgeous women in the world: she’s also famous, her beauty officially certified. This is pure Hollywood pop boiled down to its sparkly, self-amused essence, but it’s not obnoxious, like those films by aging Hollywood directors who suddenly begin shooting and editing like MTV-trained hype artists. (The first generation of MTV-trained hype artists are themselves pretty long in the tooth by now.) If the Godard of Pierrot le Fou and Two or Three Things I Know About Her had been able to go commercial with the same brightly colored, what-the-hell brio that he applied to his art, it might actually have looked and felt a little like this.

director Ron Howard
Daniel Bruhl’s amusingly curt, beady-eyed performance could be bottled and sold as “Essence d’Harvey Keitel”; he has the angry, watchful manner and the constricted body language of Keitel at his most seething down pat, so much so that, by the end of the movie, you may have forgotten that the actual Keitel isn’t German. (After watching Bruhl for a couple of hours, it suddenly seems as if he ought to be.) If Rush has a tension to it that’s largely been absent even from most of Howard’s better movies, it may because the rivalry at its center expresses a split between Howard’s persona and his way of working and the values that his style genuflects before. Rush puts James Hunt on a pedestal, because it knows that the kind of unreflective, party-hearty animal energy he represents is what this kind of pop filmmaking was made to revere. But it keeps kicking at that pedestal. Time and time again, he’s shown to be a fool who destroys his own best chances at enduring, adult happiness. (His wife runs off and ends up marrying Richard Burton. Rush has an understated, perhaps unintended running joke about the indignity of aging celebrities and younger women; Lauda catches his bride-to-be when she’s on the rebound from Curd J├╝rgens. Let it be noted that Ron Howard has been married to the same woman for 38 years.) Hunt is at least partly to blame for the accident that almost costs Lauda his life and leaves him permanently disfigured, and he finally wins his single championship, because Lauda is out of commission for a few races, after which he has no interest in putting in the work it would take to be the best, because he has “nothing left to prove.”

All the glamour-shot lighting and meticulously tousled golden locks in the world can’t keep this from seeming like an awfully chintzy form of heroism. By contrast, Lauda crawls back from the brink of death, goes right back to work even before he can pull his helmet over his scarred face without pain – and, even after his time away, would win the championship that Hunt claims if he didn’t have the good sense to sit out the final race because the weather is dangerous. Rush is a film about the rivalry between a lazy golden god and a charmless striver from a director who sees it as his job to glorify the god, for the audience’s approval, yet who can’t deny that he feels closer to the striver. (The movie’s way of showing Hunt rising to the occasion is to have him physically assault a reporter who has had the temerity to ask Lauda if he doesn’t think his beautiful wife will leave him now that his face has been damaged. No doubt there will be cheers among the groundlings when Hunt lures the much smaller reporter into a room and sucker punches him, but the movie seems to know that it’s more devastating, and classier, when Lauda responds to the question with a lethal stare and a simple “Fuck you, press conference is over.”) Hunt won his trophy, wandered off the field, partied some more, and died of a heart attack in his mid-forties. Lauda won more championships, retired, and lives to be briefly seen at the end of this movie. Howard and Lauda don’t deny the appeal of “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” But they also know who gets to write the history.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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