Rush is Ron Howard's best film since Apollo 13. Or at least his most entertaining, and for that director, there's not a huge gap between those two positions. Of course, given the films he's made in that 18-year gap, it's no special achievement, but it is anyways exciting to see a not-untalented Hollywood filmmaker in the business of making a Hollywood entertainment that has all kinds of stylistic energy and feels in every possible way like he's recharged his creative batteries. It's known that this was a far smaller-scale, functionally independent production than anything Howard has done in quite some time, and maybe that's what done it: a chance to work without a net and at the more brutally efficient pace demanded by lower-budget filmmaking resulted in a film that's alive and feverish in all the ways that even well-made prestige curios like Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man are frankly a little snoozy.
It also surely helps that the film is about race cars, the first automotive-themed Howard film since his directorial debut all the way back in 1977, Grand Theft Auto (which, along with the great majority of humans, I haven't seen). Not that you can't make a racing movie boring and sedate if that's really your desire, but it's certainly not what happens here: Rush has all the raging kineticism of the heyday of the Formula 1 movies, a generation or two ago, with breathless editing by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill that implies the quick shifts in attention that come with racing around scenic roads at insane speeds, without ever sacrificing continuity; meanwhile, some of the most present sound design of 2013 puts a strong emphasis on the rumble and screaming of Formula 1 engines, even privileging automotive sounds over dialogue in certain places where don't really need to know what the characters are saying. It is a film heavy with the experience of being in and around these vehicles, in the most electric way possible, and the better thing is that it still possesses the same unrelenting aesthetic in the entirely human-focused passages, suggesting as well as any race movie ever has that things don't slow down for these sorts of people just because they're off the track. Given that the very meat of the plot consists of a rivalry between two men who allow their lives as racers to dominate everything else in their existence, this suits the film brilliantly.
Rush tells the factual tale of Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) of Austria and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) of the UK, who were for a patch of time in the mid-'70s, the two best race car drivers in the world. This, naturally enough, led them into a great competition to prove dominance over the course of the 1976 Grand Prix season. That's really all there is to it, plot-wise: a little bit of background, and even less of an epilogue, and mostly a month-by-month recap of the two men's fortunes. What makes this a truly interesting movie and not just a fun bit of racing porn lies in the gulf between the men's personalities: Hunt, a hedonistic playboy whose driving style is as flashy as his high living, clashes not just athletically but morally with the severely disciplined and icily unlikable Lauda, who views racing with mathematic dispassion, a difference reflected in every conversation they share and every event that happens to each of them individually. The other thing that happens, and surely the reason that Rush got made to start with - because good God, is it ever a great sports narrative - is that in August, of that year, Lauda suffered a terrible accident thanks to adverse weather conditions during a race that he had reluctance to starting on in the first place, burning his face and the inside of his lungs. This offered Hunt a clear window to make up points to close the gap between himself and Lauda at that point, and so it was that Lauda, still recovering from massive physical trauma, you understand, hopped back in his car to give Hunt a real race for the win; it ended up coming down to the very last lap of the very last race to decide the victory between the two men by a single point.
The whole thing is pop art candy: huge, distinctive personalities, played in great iconic beats by Brühl and and ideally-cast Hemsworth (who I now finally come to admire as an actor, though I think that Brühl, given three or four times as many emotional registers to play, makes a considerably stronger impression), shamelessly thriller plot right up to its played-for-all-it's-worth nailbiter climax. It even looks a little like pop art, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle combating the inherent drabness of the 1970s by blasting the up the contrast and saturation, to end up with a movie that looks something like a rainbow made of chrome. Even so, for all that the film is a smug, unapologetic crowd-pleaser, there's something gratifyingly restrained and adult about it; not just because the setting is a throwback without indulging in nostalgia, but because Hunt and Lauda come across to us as legitimate human grown-ups. Grown-ups with massively dysfunctional emotional health, mind you, but there's maturity in Peter Morgan's blessedly well-constructed, clear-cut screenplay, human behavior at the extreme edges that is still never anything but human. Even in the face of all the style and energy, there is still time for feeling: a sequence where Lauda, visions of his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) in his eyes, elects not to race his car, is subtle and simple and deeply, deeply moving, as perfect a tearjerking moment as I've seen this year, with Brühl doing terrific work outacting his facial burn prosthetics to an inspiring degree.
Of course there are problems here, some more surmountable than others: the way that the female characters in the script are all unabashed props for the men's stories is off-putting, redeemed, if indeed it is, only because of the hyper-masculine world being depicted. Not that any of the side characters are terribly well-developed, I suppose, except for the ones who emerge as some manner of comic relief. The script doesn't bother to explain what Formula 1 racing actually is, which matters more in America than in Europe, the marketplace that the film is not-so-secretly meant for; still, considering that the sport's height of popularity was a generation ago or more, some context would be appropriate. It begins with one of those "unexplained scene that we'll get back to about halfway through the film" gambits that are quickly turning into one of the laziest devices in modern screenwriting, though Morgan helps it along with some punch narration given to Brühl.
But this is, after all, designed to be at least a little frivolous: expressionist emotions delivered in the most engaging and real way that can be achieved by a filmmaker whose talent for creating intense dramatic momentum I had forgotten, aided by two pretty terrific performances that feel like star turns except for the fact that neither of the men is, properly speaking, a star.* The whole thing is a bit surfacey and sleek, and all, but it's really snappy entertainment, too, and the great art of making slick entertainment for adult audiences has been too long forgotten to start bitching about it the second it makes such a thrilling resurgence.