TIFF 2013 Review: Rush

Half of Ron Howard's Formula 1 racing movie, starring Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, is "a total mess."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Rush is Seabiscuit on wheels. That’s not really a stretch. It’s another sports movie based on a true story, courting awards season if not blatantly filling in the checkboxes of self-destructive characters and triumph over adversity. However, it is neither fast nor furious. I’m not a sellout here.

James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) were rivals on the Formula 1 race circuit in the ‘70s. The year of 1976 is chronicled as it features the culmination of their competition, and the most obvious three act structure with Oscar bait moments.

The first half of this movie is a total mess, trying to shoehorn documented history into the movie they wanted to make. Hunt is disqualified for the measurements of his car, gets stuck with a subpar vehicle for a while, and then it’s overturned and he’s back in the race. There’s a scene with his mechanics in the garage tinkering with the aerodynamics, but it’s not explained to us in layman’s way. Can’t we at least measure up to the minimum standards of The Fast and the Furious explaining to us how suped up cars and NOS work?

Second Opinion: William Bibbiani says Rush "a refreshingly positive approach to the sports genre."

Maybe if the races were more than a bunch of montages, we might get a sense of the compromises in Hunt’s vehicles. While there are some excellent crane shots of the race track, we never see how the drivers actually win races. As in, how one car overtakes another car or how one driver is more skillful than his opponent. By the middle of the movie, the most exciting scene is a meeting to cancel a race in the rain. That scene is still a blatant excuse to show how Hunt’s charisma carries more weight than actual safety, but it’s probably true.

Lauda criticizes Ferrari, calling their car a “shit box,” but he charms his future wife by telling her what’s wrong with her car. His ass can tell. So clearly, a guy this cocky is going to get humbled. At least Lauda’s marriage is part of the story. There is no reason for Suzy Hunt (Olivia Wilde) to even be a character in this movie. She’s only in three scenes before she leaves James for Richard Burton, and her third scene 40 minutes in is clearly written to be her Oscar clip even though there’s been no relationship established, not that it would be any less blatant had it come later after more character development.

Anything about the divorce that informs James could have been accomplished through stock footage of the real Suzy. They cut to Suzy again much later as she’s watching the final race. Why? Just to remind us she was in the movie? Utterly pointless. This is nothing against Wilde herself. She’s doing a fine job, but the part is constructed superficially in the screenplay to get a star “girl” in there.

It feels too easy to take mainstream family friendly Ron Howard to task for trying to be edgy. He’s certainly included adult themes into films like Night Shift, Ransom and The Missing before (though I can’t honestly remember what was objectionable about those R-rated films). In Rush, “edgy” means a mile-high club scene and more sex montages with fleeting boobies, and gory shots of bones protruding from injured drivers. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the director who showed us Daryl Hannah’s butt in Splash, because PG used to mean something, dammit. The graphic injuries are relevant to convey the deadly risks of this sport, and the sex stuff perhaps to show the freewheeling lifestyle these daredevils lead. I suppose what’s most telling is it would be the same movie it you took out those boob and gore shots, but here they are anyway.

Finally, after that rain meeting, Rush picks up just enough to be a tolerable sports movie. The next three races the film portrays actually have their own mini-narratives, so we understand their significance. We learn the way the points system works in F1, at least well enough to know what has to happen in the final race.

Lauda suffers an injury and has to rehabilitate himself, which is also a formula but at least it’s a good one. The scene where he forces his helmet back on while still recovering in the hospital is good stuff. This injury also bonds Lauda with Hunt when he returns. Hunt becomes Lauda’s Apollo Creed, still fiercely competitive, but no longer petty.

I still had questions. Did Lauda practice before his return race? Did he just walk out of the hospital and jump right back into competition? I know this was a pretty fast turnaround. It all happened in one race season. I’m not curious enough about it to Google it though, and a really good biopic should totally make me want to Google.

This review started out pretty vicious, and for a 50/50 I had a lot more negative to say than positive. In the actual running time of the movie though it’s about 50/50. That’s not glowing, but if you’re stuck watching Rush, it gets better. 

5


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.