Ron Howard is a friend of the site. I believe he and Harry got to know each other when Harry campaigned for a screening of EDTV to be held at Austin’s grand old theater, the Paramount (which required upgrading the equipment) back in 1998. He later flew Harry out to get his opinion on an early cut of HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. And Ron Howard has even shown up at Butt-Numb-A-Thon. I have always respected him for his early appreciation of online media, his generally genial attitude, his longevity in the industry, and his ability to please a mass audience.
But as I filmmaker, there are few who frustrate me more. Almost as a rule, I can’t stand Ron Howard films. It isn’t because he’s not good at what he does. On the contrary --- his films make money, he has made successful films in a variety of genres, and he’s had a big impact on American culture. He’s quite talented at doing what he intends to do. But it is his intentions that bug me. He can take a complicated story, change many of the basic facts until it fits a convenient Hollywood narrative, and then hammer away at a basic theme with every cliche in the book. Take A BEAUTIFUL MIND, which diverges so extravagantly from the truth that the protagonist should never have been named John Nash. Or CINDERELLA MAN, where the title itself tells you the archetype the reality is shoehorned into. The result is often pedestrian, middlebrow pablum. Ron Howard is like the Olive Garden of filmmakers.
The exception is APOLLO 13. I love APOLLO 13. That’s because the story itself is a complete work of art. Ron Howard used his considerable filmmaking talents in support of, rather than working at cross purposes to the story.
RUSH is Ron Howard’s best film since APOLLO 13. It is still imperfect, and has many of the flaws you expect from a Ron Howard film, but it has moments of greatness too, and these overcome the negatives to create a pretty good time at the movies.
RUSH is based on the true story of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda for the 1976 Formula One championship. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a carefree party animal and ladies man who lives to race. Lauda (Daniel Brühl) shares his enthusiasm for racing, but could not otherwise be more different. He’s analytical, blunt, and kind of an asshole. In the film, the two become rivals while racing in what amounts to the minor leagues. Their different approaches to life are also reflected in their relationships, with Lauda getting serious with a girl he meets at a party, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Laura), and Hunt going through a series of women until he begins a rocky marriage with Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, almost unrecognizable as a 70s blonde). Eventually, one of the racers gets in a horrible accident, and struggles to recover in time for the last few races of the season, with the championship on the line.
One of the things RUSH has going for it is that it wasn’t written by Akiva Goldsman. Peter Morgan did the scripting, based partially on a series of interviews with Niki Lauda. He still has Goldsman’s penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth -- all kinds of personal and introductory details are mangled to up the ante of the story. For example, courtships happen in a single conversation, instead of over months. The two protagonists are enemies through most of the film, when in real life they were early friends (albeit rivals). Still, despite this Howardian tampering with the facts to make a “better” story, the film comes through mainly because the second half sticks largely to reality. And what a compelling reality it is.
There are a few other atypical things for a Ron Howard film. For a start, it is more visually striking. Anthony Dod Mantle did the cinematography, and his knack for pushing the boundaries to award-winning brilliance shows. This is a guy who gave us such diverse films as 28 DAYS LATER, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, and DREDD). Here he’s as adept at capturing the look of the 70s without seeming gimmicky as he is at making us feel the speed by putting us right in the car with the driver. The film looks great, but even more importantly, the action just works.
But we care about the action because we care about the characters. While the real-life characters were almost larger than life, the two leads, Chris Hemsworth, and Daniel Brühl do an outstanding job of capturing them. Daniel Brühl has seemingly become the go-to guy in Hollywood for roles featuring native German speakers. His work here is outstanding, and he also played Daniel Domscheit-Berg, arguably the main character in THE FIFTH ESTATE. Here he takes a somewhat unsympathetic character and turns the audience around completely. Chris Hemsworth’s character, while not being entirely un-Thor-like, is not entirely the same either. He’s more difficult to pull off in that he’s based on a real person, and one with a British accent at that.
Maybe one of the most impressive feats of RUSH is that it looks like it cost $150 million, when it actually had a budget of, by most accounts, less than $40 million. Part of this is because it is because Americans (myself included) generally don’t care about F1 racing, so the American box office could not be counted on when the financing was raised. The film does feel a bit more “European” than typical Ron Howard fare with sex, drugs, and more morally ambiguous characters. Maybe he’s just pandering to a European audience instead of an American one. I don’t care, all I know is that the film really works as a moving story, has great characters, solid acting, and top-notch action.