Saturday, 11 January 2014

Can’t Slow Down; on Rush

Poor, Rush. I saw it all those months ago and couldn’t even a muster up a short review of it. But, that’s hardly any indication of the film’s quality. I think I was so distracted by the idea of everyone seeming to dislike Ron Howard I’d forgotten that I bore little ill will towards the guy. I’m the only one I know who had Cinderella Man in his top 10 in 2005 (my favourite post 2000 Ron Howard film). But moving on to Rush.

Sports movies, specifically historical sports movies (Formula One racing counts as sports, right?) are not always, or even often, a guaranteed sell for me. Oftentimes they seem destined to follow the same, sometimes hopelessly banal, trajectory of rise-hurdle-tension-success that’s potentially heart-warming but can be uninteresting to watch. Rush to some extent, does maintain a similar trajectory, but where it manages to immediately to rise above the fray is by representing its sport in such exciting fashion. I’m not one for car racing, but Howard’s control of the camera regarding the film’s multiple race scenes is impressive and turns the sports drama into an action film, too, with the tension and adrenaline rushing and even veers into thriller territory as it nears its climax and resolution. Unsurprisingly, the world of Formula One is a masculine one but Rush with its focus on the racing more than the men, even, avoids one of the things I expected it to veer off track – action packed, and conventionally male focused but never claustrophobically hyper-masculine.
So much of Rush is spent in cars that this asset can’t be overlooked. Disinterest in the racing from the audience would fell the film. This is not a film about the “triumph of the human spirit” cum car racing, but emphatically a movie about racing cars with some humanity on the side. That might sound like a backhanded compliment because the entry point for competition films almost always ends up being the audience’s investment in a particular’s character’s triumph. Not here. At least that’s not the only thing happening here. Ron Howard directs Rush as if he wants it to live and breathe in that fast-paced, sweat-soaked world of Formula one to the point that the film is just about its two driver and its driving and everything else which happens exists – deliberately – on the peripherals. And, for the most part, he succeeds because those visceral jolts are delivered and the spectacle is achieved in true fast-paced fashion. Just look at how the screenplay (well written by Peter Morgan), though effective in the setting up of scenes, is essentially bare on plot. Austrian Niki Lauda and Briton James Hunt meet each other Formula Three race and instantly dislike the other. Six years later they compete in the Formula One season and the film follows the year in 1976 when the two men are the sports best, and each other’s biggest rivals.

...more below on Rush's low plots, its acting and its women...

As I said, low on plot. The main thing Howard is using from his arsenal is his proficiency with these action set-pieces, which pop with significant verve; and, the duo of actors playing the two rivals at the centre. I’ve always found Chris Hemsworth pleasant but too ineffective to be truly charming and playing the playboy, caddish James Hunt is not the surest bet to winning points for charm but he does a fine job of playing up just how this can be appealing in spite of his caddish qualities. The film’s acting beacon is, as I’m sure every review has noted, is Daniel Brühl in a performance as focused and unrelenting as Howard’s direction. For one, doggedly resolute and oftentimes abrasive Nika Lauda is a character with much more depth. The two are co-leads and Hemsworth, I’d suspect, edges him out a little in screen-time but the film’s richest beats are written with Lauda in mind and Brühl makes good of the role offering up a fine performance. Morgan’s screenplay is generous in never making Lauda’s abrasiveness villainous but with only a sliver of “back-story” to speak Brühl manages to make Lauda’s nervous tics, his well-hidden insecurities and his gusto thrilling to watch.

Rush, with its look into the man-filled world of race car driving has taken some heat for its implicit misogyny, an accusation I’m wary of. I hesitate to say Rush has a woman problem. Like, for example, the way Captain Phillips tells us of a world inherently about males, the film reflects the male centred world of Formula One racing, although it’s fair to point out that generally the film isn’t much interested in anyone not named Lauda or Hunt. Technically, only these two are given much focus as people, leaving the fringe characters as occasional ciphers in their wake. It is, though, fairer to say that womanising James Hunt has a woman problem and the film’s falsest step. The film’s opening; focusing on James brief dalliance with a nurse, sets up his character well but seems to be a great waste of Natalie Dormer. His later, brief, marriage to model Suzy Miller similarly lays the root for his caddishness, but the film’s final shot of her after his final race reveals much too sentimentally pat a view of her investment in his career.
And, still, I hesitate to call it an intrinsic problem with the film when its examination of Lauda’s relationship with Marlene Knaus (although, firmly through its relevance to his racing) is much more sensitively drawn. The most unexpected thing about the film is the warmness emanating from the screen when the two have a meet-cute at a party. Her bemused reaction to the revelation that he is a race car driver is as amusing as it is charming, “Formula One drivers they have long hair, are sexy, their shirts are open to here.” The role is credibly written, but it’s Alexandra Maria Lara (most memorable for her me as a concentration camp victim in The Reader) whose performance adds specific depth to the role. It’s worth it for two fine scenes one, where he questions their marriage because of the way it threatens his fearlessness on the track. And the second, a pivotal moment in the climax where visions of her encourage him to decide against continuing a race in tumultuous circumstances. Yes, it’s all sort of more externally focused than internal but it gives enough indication of a private life’s significance vis a vis the machinations on the race track that it works. Is a film immediately indictable for not focusing, principally, on its characters emotions? With Rush I feel the little we’re given is enough.

The film is itself a showpiece. Excellently edited with some of my favourite work from Anthony Dod Mantle giving a nice view of the popping and pulpish in its representation of the seventies. Zimmers score is arresting and Morgan’s screenplay proves that a thin plot doesn’t indicate a poorly written film. Rush made me think of that line in Cabaret (how’s that for odd comparisons?) when the Emcee says, “We have no place for hopelessness here.” Even amidst the film’s most harrowing moments when Lauda has his almost fatal accident the film’s forward momentum with focus on the race track is evident. While he’s pumping his stomach in the hospital he insists that the television be on to watch the race. That’s the sort of dogged focus on the race track the film has. Other things happen around and to Hunt and Lauda but the film keeps it focus decisively on the track. The film mirrors that, focused on the tension and adrenaline of the track to the expense of all else and hurtling to its climax (those two hours just fly by). But, it works.


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