Ron Howard is a director that most think rather highly of, but the truth of the matter is that he’s somewhat inconsistent. Sure, we all love “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon,” but there’s also his lousy adaptations of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.” He’s even dabbled in comedy a bit over his many years, most recently with 2011’s “The Dilemma.” Anyone remember that train wreck? Probably not, because our perceptions of his skills as a director are skewed towards his greater works. His latest, “Rush,” is closer to the latter films than the former, unfortunately, but that doesn’t automatically make it bad. It’s a good movie and its problems stem more from a slightly unfocused script and poor characterizations than any specific directorial decision, but as far as dramatic, based-on-true-stories go, it’s not particularly memorable.
The movie takes place in the 70s and stars Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, a reckless Formula One racecar driver with dreams of becoming world champion. He’s one of the absolute best in the sport, matched only by Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Bruhl. The movie follows their rivalry and creates an interesting dynamic between the two. Despite their dislike for each other, there’s a mutual respect. Without the other, they would be unstoppable, which isn’t as interesting to them. It’s the competition, the thrill of victory after a hard fought battle, that compels them to do what they do. Because the two hardly spend any time together, their complicated relationship must have been tough to convey, but “Rush” rises to this challenge. Aside from the intellectually insulting closing narration that unnecessarily spells out their feelings, the complexity of their bond is handled with aplomb.
Nevertheless, the film loses its focus all too quickly. Just as we’re getting to know one of these men, a transition is made to the other, or even worse, the focus leaves them altogether. Too much of the early moments in the movie focus on the economics of racing—like the battle to find a sponsor—rather than the emotional struggle and pressure they must have felt in those early days. Too often, important moments in the lives of these men are glossed over. These moments could have helped us gain perspective on who they were and what drove them to race so vigorously, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in that. A good example comes in the form of Hunt’s short-lived wife, Suzy Miller, played by Olivia Wilde. When she randomly and awkwardly appears, the film immediately cuts to their marriage, only for the next scene to play out their break-up. She then disappears for nearly the entirety of the rest of the movie, reappearing only for a brief lunch scene with Hunt. It’s implied that Hunt’s love of racing interfered with his love for Suzy, but the entire arc is rushed through so quickly, it hardly makes an impact.
I suppose such a decision was a conscious one. The film is trying to condense many years worth of time into a couple hours—seen most noticeably when it starts bypassing important races and instead lets us know what happened through onscreen text, not exactly the most exciting tactic one can use in a movie about racing—so Suzy’s lack of prominence isn’t surprising. If this speedy approach does one thing well, it filters out some of the narrative pollution and allows the natural tension of such a dangerous sport to take center stage. These drivers live on the edge, well aware that every time they hop on that track, it could be their last. As Hunt puts it early on, “The closer to death you are, the more alive you feel. It’s a wonderful way to live, as if each day is your last.” This theme is an interesting one that will allow those who have never really done anything daring to live vicariously through the characters. Even if you don’t care at all about Formula One racing, it will be hard to deny that you weren’t on the edge of your seat during the nail-biting finale.
Yet the fact remains that the film, from a storytelling and scriptural point of view, is lacking. Frankly, if you’re looking for a great movie with a similar story, you’re better off with 2010’s wonderful “Senna.” Although a documentary, its drama is more potent, its action is more intense and the devastating ending touches on feelings “Rush” doesn’t come close to. With some great performances and exciting sequences accompanied by a sometimes frustrating lack of focus, “Rush” relegates itself to a minor diversion and nothing more.
Rush receives 3/5