Tuesday, September 3, 2013

'Rush' (2013) directed by Ron Howard

On paper Formula 1 is incredibly exciting.  Exotic courses, huge crowds and cars that represent the pinnacle of modern mechanical engineering.  Yet I find watching it on TV a bit boring.  The helicopter tracking shots provide little sense of speed, the screen is crammed with data and there's advertising everywhere.  The cars seem to politely process along a line, playing everything as safe as they can - it's difficult to suppress a groan when you realise there's 50 more laps of this tedium.  Rush is different.  Rush is a battle of personalities, a simple struggle between two sportsmen elevated to the status of mythological epic.  Rush, much like the cars it depicts, is streamlined: everything unnecessary has been stripped away, leaving a taut, dynamic and really, really exciting movie.

The closest point of comparison  is also the most blindingly obvious.  Senna, the brilliant 2010 documentary by Asif Kapadia is a clear influence on Rush.  The film mirrors Senna's focus on the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost; here it's the mutual loathing between the charismatic hedonist James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and analytical genius Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).  We follow them from their first meetings as semi-amateurs in Formula 3, to their ascent to the top flights of Formula 1 with a focus on the (apparently) legendary 1976 season.  

I know very, very little about the history of Formula 1, let alone the details of what was happening in the mid 70s.  Fortunately this lack of knowledge vastly improves the film.  This was a dangerous time for motor racing, Hunt is only half joking in describing his car as a "bomb on wheels".  In Rush, racing is a spiritual union between man and machine, a split second bit of bad luck or poor decision making and you're violently hurled from the divine into blood, fire and carnage.

Lauda at work fixing his car.
Lauda's mantra is that he has a 20% chance of dying during a race, and he refuses to increase that percentage.  It's this ever-present risk that makes Rush so gripping.  I advise against reading any biographies of these men purely because any hint as to who (if anyone) survives is poison to the impossible tension that climaxes in the final race.  That this is a true story ratchets up the excitement: knowing that events aren't bound to traditional narrative forms means I had the rare pleasure of having no idea what was going to happen.  One thing you do know is that Ron Howard has such a strong handle on this material that whatever happens will somehow be 'the right thing'.

With that in mind, there's admittedly nothing particularly original about the structure of Rush's narrative, in a lesser director's hands this could be just another sports movie. Howard elevates this material, taking the already exciting real-life conflict and using it as a springboard examine what it means to place yourself in perfect harmony with a machine.

The link between driver and car in Rush is practically symbiotic.  James Hunt smokes like a chimney and drinks copious amount of liquor; the smoke billowing from his mouth visually linked to the exhaust fumes of his car, the booze functioning as an ersatz petrol substitute. He's famed for his sexual prowess, pistoning his way through women throughout the movie. Hemsworth's ultra-hunky Thor build lets him move with a powerful grace that mirrors the thrust of his car.

Did I mention Hemsworth is exceptionally hunky in this film? 
If Hunt is all about power and energy, then Lauda is a model of control and precision.  He throws himself into engineering, paring down his vehicle to a perfectly tuned, perfectly weighted tool.  This tight grasp on his car to be is reflected in the way he moulds his personality.  No matter how Hunt insults him it never quite makes an impact as Lauda is absolutely secure in who he is and what he wants.  Mid-way through the film Lauda crashes and it's here that the union between man and machine is strongest.  As we hear the growl of powerful engines, doctors slide metal tubes down his throat. They gurgle obscenely as they suck fluid from his lungs.  This is the stuff of Cronenberg, Giger and Tetsuo: Iron Man, machinery trespassing in a faintly sexual manner upon Lauda's disfigured body.

This carefully constructed link between driver and cars accentuates every moment of drama in the races.  These scenes are all about physicality - the squeal as tyre makes contact with road, the pistons pumping within the engine, the quick forceful gear changes reflected back in closeup within the car - the visible anatomy of the car a shorthand for what's going on inside the racer's body.  Something as mundane as a punctured tyre becomes a metaphor for internal defeat, or pressing on despite a painful bloody injury the epitome in bravery.

All this is elevated by an outstanding Hans Zimmer score.  It's strongly electric guitar-based, giving it an appropriate retro tinge as well as emphasising the individualism of the characters.  Kudos must also go to the CGI team, although I have no idea what to highlight as the special effects in this film are completely invisible.  Logically I know that at some points those cars (and indeed the track as well) must be digital recreations, but I wouldn't like to put any money on when the switch is made.

Both Hemsworth and Brühl also deeply impress.  Hemsworth proves his acting chops, pulling the not inconsiderable task of taking an occasionally callous, abusive, rich tit and making him someone we can't help but root for.  The way Hunt is constructed should make him unbearable, but Hemsworth's considerable charisma shines through, and his infectious, friendly smile makes us like him despite our better judgment.  Brühl has a similar task, yet inverted, having to make someone cold and unfunny admirable.  By the end of the film we feel an almost paternal compassion for Lauda, wishing the very best for him and respecting his difficult decisions.

Rush is great fun, probably better than it has any right to be. It's up there with the classics of the sports genre, technically outstanding and rarely puts a foot wrong.   Highly recommended.

Rush is on general release from 13 September 2013

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