Movie Review: Rush (2013)
Everyone’s driven by something.
That’s the movie’s tagline. Of course, being a movie, it’s more interested in the “driven” than the “something,” but at least it makes feints toward the latter. It’s written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, the team who gave us “Frost/Nixon,” so it should aspire to some kind of meaning. It shouldn’t just be zoom-zoom.
And it’s not. It’s zoom-zoom but it’s also a vague character study in the Peter Morgan mould. Is that enough?
Peter Morgan is big on his dichotomies, isn’t he? He’s particularly big on historical dichotomies of the past 40 years. Thus Idi Amin and Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen” (2006), David Frost and Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Don Revie and Brian Clough in “The Damned United” (2009). Now, in “Rush,” we get the epic battle between 1970s-era Formula-One race-car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Ready? Hunt is tall, blond, a sex machine and a party animal. Lauda is short, mousy, with rat-like buck teeth. He’s blunt and friendless while Hunt is friends with everyone. Hunt takes risks, Lauda less so. Lauda is all about calculations and odds, while Hunt is like Han Solo: Don’t tell him the odds! He’s balls out. Lauda keeps his balls in, thank you.
At the start, we get voiceovers from both men about why men in general race cars around tracks: They’re rebels, dreamers, people desperate to make a mark. “I don’t know why it became such a big thing,” Lauda says about his rivalry with Hunt. “We’re just driven.”
These voiceovers occur on August 1, 1976, a rain day full of portent. At which point we flash back six years earlier. Hunt is walking, almost strutting, into a hospital with bloody nose and bare feet. In voiceover, he asks us, as he flirts with one of the nurses, (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), why women like racecar drivers.
Uhhh... Cuz you look like Thor?
“It’s our closeness to death,” he answers.
At this point Hunt is only a Formula Three driver. But in the first race we see, he butts heads, and cars, with Lauda. Hunt shows up late, having partied all night, while Lauda shows up early to study the race track. He’s a student and a businessman. He’s careful. Too careful. At a particular turn, he doesn’t take the risk, Hunt does, Hunt wins. Thus begins the rivalry.
This rivalry takes them to the top: Lauda drives for Team Ferrari, Hunt for Team McLaren, in Formula One racing. Along the way, Hunt settles down, kinda, with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, who looks great as a ‘70s blonde), while Lauda meets cute with a German girl, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), as both flee a party where neither wants to be. He was driven there, she’s driving. He pauses to tell her everything wrong with her car. She scoffs. Cut to: the car smoking by the side of the road. OK, so we see that coming. Then it becomes a riff on the hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night.” He tries, gets nowhere. She tries, in her party dress, and a car comes screeching to a halt. Except, nice bit here, the two men, rowdy Italians, bypass her to get to Lauda, the Formula One racecar driver for Ferrari! They’re beside themselves. They even let him drive their car. When Marlene mocks his careful driving, he takes it to another level. All in all, a nice scene.
The focus of the film is the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt in 1976. Lauda, the reigning world champion, starts out strong, winning race after race. Then Hunt begins to win. Will he catch up? That takes us to the day of portent, in rainy Nurburg, West Germany, the 10th race of the 16-race season. Lauda, who measures the odds, who knows that with every race he has a 20 percent chance of dying, and that the rain is increasing those odds, suggests cancelation. The others vote to race. He’s the one who pays. His car spins out, erupts in flames, and he suffers smoke inhalation damage and lifelong scars on his face. He’s done but Hunt continues.
But Lauda isn’t done. Less than two months later, he’s back, and the rivalry plays out on the final race of the season.
On another rainy day, Lauda, mid-race, bows out, deciding it’s not worth it. He sees the face of Marlene, whom he’s married, and whom he told on their honeymoon, “Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Suddenly, you have something to lose.” That’s what appears to happen here. He sees his wife’s face, he quits. Meanwhile, Hunt, with a last-minute sprint, finishes third in the race, which gives him just enough points to beat Lauda for the world championship. Now he’s World Champion.
At which point we get one of the odder things I’ve seen in a movie.
Most movie montages are there to set up the third act, a la “Rocky,” but once Hunt wins we get a kind of “Will Success Spoil James Hunt?” montage: partying, sex, blow, and TV commercials. I thought: “Wait, isn’t the movie nearly over?” It is. This montage sets up the epilogue. And the epilogue upsets the rest of the story.
In an airplane hangar, Hunt runs into Lauda, who’s working on his plane, and who waxes poetic about flying. He seems like he’s retired from racing and encourages Hunt to try flying. Then he encourages Hunt back on the track. But Hunt is too busy being a celebrity. They have a serious moment here. Hunt says he feels bad about his part in making Niki race on August 1, 1976. Lauda acknowledges it, in his blunt manner, but adds, “You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.” I.e., Because Hunt kept winning races, Lauda had to come back from his horrific accident and disfigurement.
And he’s still racing. That’s the thing. Lauda is back on the track and he wants Hunt there, too. He talks about how far both of them have come, in part because of their rivalry, and he wants that rivalry to continue. But Hunt is noncommittal. In an afterword, we’re told he stops racing to become a TV commentator while Lauda wins back the world championship in 1977 and again in 1984. You think, “Wow! That’s a great story. How come we didn’t get more of that story?” In this way, “Rush” is similar to Morgan’s “Damned United.” There, in an afterword, we’re told that Brian Clough, the careful coach, went on to huge success, but the movie focuses on his rivalry with Don Revie, the balls-out coach, because apparently that’s what Peter Morgan likes to focus on. Apparently he thinks such rivalries and dichotomies are more dramatic. Maybe they are. Even so. Something’s missing here. And it’s “something.”
Everyone’s driven by something. It’s a movie, yes, so we get the “driven” more than the “something.” Normally that would be fine. But since the “something” goes away for one man and not the other, that’s the key. But we don’t get it.
Look, “Rush” is a good movie. It’s fun and semi-serious. The acting is good, the production values high. It’s just missing something.