Rush to Judgment
Fans who love Formula 1 racing history loathe Ron Howard’s new film, Rush, about the 1976 season in which Austrian Niki Lauda and British James Hunt fought for the title up until the season’s very last race. Because the film changes the historical facts to invent drama, such critics see just another example of Ron Howard’s sentimental, simplistic storytelling. Of course, all Hollywood films sculpt complex, ambiguous history into cookie-cutter Aristotelian three-act structured plots. Cars are not all in such films that are fueled by formulae. However, this critique misses the sociological sophistication with which Peter Morgan’s script re-writes the Hollywood sports film away from simplistic rivalries and toward an understanding of what competing and winning actually means.
The canonical tale told to lament Hollywood’s idiocy when it comes to sports movies is the adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural by Diner director, Barry Levinson. At the end of Malamud’s 1952 masterpiece, Roy Hobbs, having been bribed to throw the pivotal final game of the season in order to assist the corrupt team owner’s scheme to make money, attempts to hit a home run anyway, but because he is injured, strikes out. The novel’s ending indicts the American Dream mythology which bathes sports in general and baseball in particular: having been destroyed by a mistake early in his life, Roy works his way up to superstar status, only to fail at the precise moment he would be immortalized in the happy ending of a Hollywood movie. The 1984 Robert Redford film vehicle overwrites Malamud’s bitter realism, allowing Roy to hit the home run, and destroy the stadium’s lights along with the gangsters’ corruption in an effervescent cinematographic triumph.
Rush re-scripts much of the real story of Lauda and Hunt in order to set up such heroism. Even though the two drivers were friends on the racing circuit—going so far as to stay at each others’ houses—the film fantasizes that they detested each other. Playing up British/Germanic hatreds straight out of a 1940s World War II movie, Lauda the Austrian is played brilliantly by Daniel Bruehl as a cold, robotic tactician, while the playboy Hunt (played competently by pretty boy Chris Hemsworth) races fast and parties hard, an Austin Powers of the race track.
Morgan’s script is not perfect: for the talent who wrote both The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), the dialogue often shockingly wooden. As if they are teenagers gearing up for a high school football game, Hunt warns Lauda: “That wind you can feel is me breathing down your neck. Next time, I’ll have you.” Ron Howard’s journeyman direction doesn’t help. In what surely must be one of the silliest sequences of any film this year, when Hunt’s wife (played by Olivia Wilde in a thankless though thankfully brief role) leaves him for Richard Burton, Hunt responds by having mile high club sex with a stewardess in an airplane bathroom, Howard cuts to a close-up of metallic pistons grinding inside of an engine. It is the stuff of bad pornography; indeed, I seem to recall a similar bit involving Emmanuelle and the pistons of train wheels in the 1970s, but that’s another story.
Despite its obvious limitations, Rush offers an engaging depiction of the rivalry between two athletes at the peak of their careers. Halfway through the film, it becomes clear that each man’s obsession with the other’s success is driving them further than is good for them. On a rainy track at the Nuerburgring race in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting of all the drivers to suggest that they cancel the event. Hunt accuses Lauda of gamesmanship, and convinces the other drivers to vote to drive no matter the conditions. During the race, Lauda loses control of his car and almost dies in a fiery crash. Lauda endures painful procedures on his lungs to suck out the burned tissue. Over the next six weeks, in Lauda’s absence, Hunt nearly catches up to Lauda’s points total. In excruciating pain, Lauda recovers just enough to don a special helmet to cover his half-burned off face, and gets back in the car to race Hunt.
The film concludes with its best sequences, in which Lauda and Hunt behave in ways that far transcend the clichés of Hollywood sports and action movies. As with Frost/Nixon, the collision of the American filmmaker Howard and the British screenwriter Morgan produces an experience more than just the sum of its parts. The final minutes of the film offers a meditation on the cost, both physical and ethical, of competition when sports immortality is on the line. Yet unlike the film version of The Natural, where the hero and the villain are clearly delineated, and even Malamud’s version, where villainy triumphs, Rush does something refreshingly unexpected. The insane sport in which they compete becomes the antagonist, and both Hunt and Lauda respond, each according to his abilities, eloquently demonstrating why human beings untalented at such activities still find sports so mesmerizing. To not appreciate the skill with which the film puts these sociological mechanisms into motion is to let the sound and fury of the stunning racing sequences allow us to drive by the film’s thematic content, an investigation into the mysterious dynamic of the truly special sports rivalry.
– Walter Metz