Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Need For Speed

Director Ron Howard returns to theatres with Rush, a new movie centered on the 1976 season of Formula One auto racing and the rivalry of two of the best drivers: James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It's an unlikely movie for me to like... because I've never really seen the point to auto racing (I really, really don't understand the obsession with NASCAR in particular, but that might be a cultural thing). Still, one doesn't have to appreciate the sport to appreciate the movie. What we really have here, beyond the sport of auto racing, is a character study, a tale of two men who are very different, and yet strive to be the best at what they do. And grounding the story in that character study makes the film succeed.

Hunt is played here by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers). He's brash, cocky, a womanizer, the life of the party. He loves the thrill of the race, lives large and loves fast. His rival, Lauda, is played by the German actor Daniel Bruhl, whose previous works for American audiences include Inglourious Basterds (never saw it, thanks to my disdain for Quentin Tarentino), plus a walk on in The Bourne Ultimatum. Lauda is much more introverted and calculating, a serious minded racer with an engineer's mindset and a cold, withdrawn personality. The two men are very different from each other, aside from their considerable skills as drivers. That strong rivalry exists between them, and we see that play itself out, but neither man is the antagonist of the film. The story doesn't pit one firmly in our favour and the other against. It instead examines their personalities, showing us the sort of people who'd want to enter a profession with such a dangerous (and well deserved, at that) reputation. Indeed, some of what happens through the course of the film is decidedly traumatic, to say the least (you might want to close your eyes once or twice). We also meet the women in their lives; Hunt briefly marries Suzy (Olivia Wilde), while Lauda ends up getting involved with a socialite, Marlene, played by Alexandra Maria Lara. 

Writer Peter Morgan gives us the screenplay, and he's worked with Howard before, on the character drama Frost/ Nixon. His other work includes The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Last King Of Scotland, so as a screenwriter, he has an innate understanding of character. Morgan gives us a story that shows us this side of the world, the sort of person who's drawn to a sport where a single small mistake can be catastrophic. His story makes the audience think about that central question: who'd want to be in a sport this dangerous? Is a championship worth one's life?

From a production point of view, the film sets us directly in the world of racing, and the time itself; it's very much the Seventies. The cinematography by Anthony Mantle sets us squarely into the races and lets us keep track of what's happening in a way that perhaps isn't so easily done in auto racing live. Attention to detail has been paid in every way you might expect, and we feel like we're right there. At the same time, Howard and Mantle pay as much detail, along with the crew, to sequences away from the track, as it should be. The film is accompanied by frequent Howard collaborator Hans Zimmer's rock-infused score, as bombastic as you might come to expect from him.

The casting is ideal, and let's start with the supporting roles. Alexandra Maria Lara is a Romanian actress whose work has mostly been in Europe (I hadn't seen her before in anything), but her resume is impressive, and she gives us an interesting take on the wife of a racer here. I'd like to see more of her. Olivia Wilde, an actress whose work I like and who takes on roles that interest her and never seem quite the same, embodies the excess of the era in the flamboyant Suzy. I last saw her in a character drama called Deadfall, where she and most of the rest of a cast that included Eric Bana, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams completely outdid the talent lacking Charlie Hunnam in the acting department (this does not bode well for the future star of that 50 Shades adaptation). This role is a switch for her, but then she is a chameleon in her film choices anyway. Pierfrancesco Favino, who last appeared for Howard in Angels & Demons, turns up here as a racer, and character actor David Calder does a turn as well. Both are familiar faces, and both are very welcome.

It is ultimately the casting of the two leads that forms the core of the film. Hemsworth is ideally cast as the brash and handsome Hunt, the daring racer who strives to win, who's willing to play the game, and who lets his ego take the driver's seat from time to time. At a moment when he must confront the consequences of disaster- when we see him confronting the prospect of mortality, it makes his performance all the more compelling. We get to know what makes this man tick through Hemsworth's take on him. And Bruhl is well cast too. He conveys the calculating, insular nature of Lauda, the intensely serious man well, and his performance gets us into his head. The two actors bring across that rivalry very well, that obsessive need for speed, and they make the audience understand a mentality of people we might otherwise assume belong in an asylum for pursuing such a line of work.

Ron Howard has become known for blockbuster films, of course. Had he remained an actor, he would have been cursed by typecasting for the rest of his career. Instead he became a director, and as such, he became an interesting storyteller. He's delved into the blockbuster side of things throughout his career, the grand scale with films like Apollo 13, Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, and Angels & Demons. Yet all of those were based in character, as was the aforementioned Frost/ Nixon, and I was reminded of another film in his past: Cinderella Man. Boxing is another sport I could care less about, but he told a story in that film that drew in the audience and made us care. He accomplishes the same here, giving us a terrific racing film regardless of what we think of the sport. And since it's so steeped in character as its basis, it becomes a movie that is both blockbuster material and art house film. It gives us two compelling, human leads, keeps us in suspense, and draws us right into the time and place. 


  1. I'm not into NASCAR either...don't see the point in driving round and round...but it's actually more popular than football. Having said that, I've heard great things about Howard's movie that you've re-enforced. I don't watch many movies, but this one seems worth it.

  2. I enjoy Nascar. I have my favorite drivers and like to follow the rivalries (and love life) among them.

    I like Ron Howard, too. From the time he was Opie through his directing of Splash, Apollo 13 and all the other movies he's famous for.

    This is about Formula I racing rather than Nascar, I believe. And I think I read it's based on a true rivalry?

    Can't wait to see it.

  3. Nice review William. I'll keep my eyes open for it.

  4. I think you have to be a redneck to really love NASCAR. As Jeff Foxworthy says, they all think the first four words of the national anthem are: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

    I'm not into racing, either, but I was planning to see it anyway, because Chris Hemsworth is in it. (How on earth did Thor fit into a Formula One racer?)

    Your review is a relief. Eye candy AND a good story!

  5. NASCAR and F1 can never be compared. Growing up in the UK I know this era very well...James Hunt was a British hero...perhaps the movie will live up to the James I know...or perhaps not.
    Jane x

  6. I saw the preview for this and was really intrigued. I honestly think nascar is the most ridiculous thing on the planet (I'm fairly certain it requires being from the southern states of the US) but this looked really intriguing. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the great review!

  7. Terrific review.
    I dated a race car driver when I was at University, he was a driver for Shelby Mustang Racing team.
    I like Formula One there is an exciting attraction.

    Norma according to a fashion site I read he lost weight for this movie. So Thor could get into the car, minus the lighting bolts and hammer.

    cheers, parsnip

  8. @Kittie: this might be a film very well suited to those who don't go to films often.

    @Cheryl: you'll enjoy it!

    @Eve: thanks!

    @Norma: he managed to fit!

    @Jane: it'll be a different film experience for someone from a British background.

    @Meradeth: you're welcome!

  9. let us not forget the hottie starring in the film!

  10. I haven't even heard of this one. Where have I been?

  11. It's good to see the Hemsworth brothers doing so well..and I do think they're both gorgeous, but its not enough to impel me to watch a movie about car racing William :))

  12. Even losing that 30 pounds, he's still a very tall guy. They'd almost have to fold him up to get him in there!

    Grace--love the Hemsworths. Too bad Liam wasted so much time with Billy Ray's dipstick daughter!

  13. @Parsnip: using the hammer would be cheating!

    @Tammy: Mr. Hemsworth does have that effect on the ladies, after all...

    @Kelly: go and see it!

    @Grace: I'd feel the same about a football movie.

    @Norma: he's lucky to be out from under that disaster!

  14. I saw the previews for this when we went to see Elysium. I liked the preview. Though the eye candy is tempting, I'm not likely to watch a movie about car racers. Nice review though...and pics! :D

  15. Ya I dont care for racing, but I do love Ron Howard. And I agree it'd be a good story for character study alone.
    You should really see Inglorious Basterds, William. It's fantastic. Tarantino did a lot of films I didnt care for, but IB is worth watching. I think you'd like it.

  16. Rumour has it Chris Hemsworth has that effect on a lot of women!


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