I’ve had a somewhat embattled history with Ron Howard. The at-times exuberant child-actor turned director turned Arrested Development producer/voice over artist has, as of late, been maddeningly inconsistent with his projects. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, he had established himself as a perfectly function genre director of films like Splash, Cocoon, Backdraft and Willow. That trajectory began to change with 1995’s Apollo 13, a prestige period piece that received 9 Academy Award nominations and paved the way for Ron Howard, Oscar Director (that is, after the almost indescribably bizarre How the Grinch Stole Christmas, more of a vehicle for Jim Carrey’s antics and nose prosthetics than anything else). I am not a very big fan of Ron Howard, Oscar Director, particularly when it comes to his disastrous relationship with Akiva Goldsman. Howard and Goldsman have worked together four times, beginning with A Beautiful Mind, a film I do not like, but can somewhat understand why people would fall for its by-the-numbers biopic conventions. Things took a turn for the worse with their follow-up collaboration, Cinderella Man, a period piece biopic notable for having some of the worst cheesy dialogue you’ll ever hear in a prestige film. They also worked together on both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, which were equally hampered by source material and poor scripting. This is, of course, the fault of Goldsman (who I’ve come to realize might be the worst screenwriter in Hollywood, who also counts the Schumacher Batman films among his credits), and would make one believe that Howard’s biggest mistake was simply choosing to work with Goldsman over and over again.
It’s this reticence with Ron Howard’s recent work that led to me skipping Frost/Nixon and choosing not to spend the time on seeing his most recent film, Rush, in the theaters. But time heals many wounds, and the more concrete realization that Goldsman is truly to blame (this was crystallized by the trailer for A Winter’s Tale, Goldsman’s directorial debut, which looks positively dreadful), made me wonder if perhaps there was a little left in Howard’s gas tank after all. With Rush hitting DVD yesterday (and, more importantly, Redbox), it seemed prudent to give it a shot. Rush, which comes from a screenplay by Peter Morgan (also the writer of Frost/Nixon), follows the true events of 1976’s Formula One season, specifically how it framed the rivalry between two drivers at the top of their respective games, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The two characters are painted as pretty straightforward opposites; Hemsworth’s Hunt is the long-haired blonde pretty boy who follows the rock star mentality of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, while Brühl brings a sort of down-to-earth ruthless Austrian efficiency and desire to win to how he approaches life and his races. It’s a simple dichotomy, and an expected one, but it works quite well in practice.
As the film makes its way through the Formula One season, its structure is certainly conventional as it jumps from race to race, but it is always propelled forward by the strength of Hemsworth and Brühl’s performances, and the satisfying technical aspects that serve as its foundations. The races are edited within an inch of their lives by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, but remain just barely in control, much like the careening Formula One racers we see on screen. The chyrons that serve to announce the locations and results of each race fit perfectly into the style of the film and provide the information you need to keep everything in perspective without overstating the stakes. Hemsworth brings an easy charm to his party boy demeanor; you know he isn’t in it for the long run, but his determination is unwavering when it comes to short term goals. Hemsworth may ostensibly be the lead of the film, but Brühl is very much his equal, both in screen time and importance. This is Daniel Brühl’s first major role since Inglourious Basterds put him on the map as sniper turned movie star Frederick Zoller, and he makes the most of the opportunity. The film turns on the true to life crash that nearly kills Lauda, and tracks his return to the track in an attempt to hold off Hunt’s attempt to catch him in the points race and become world champion for that year. Brühl is the highlight of the film from an acting perspective, providing the sort of grounded resolve you need for a story like this to really pop.
In addition to the wonderful editing work during the races, the film is shot powerfully, especially during the two rain-swept races that serve as the pillars of Rush’s plot. Despite my misgivings regarding the quality of many of his more recent films, Ron Howard has always been an accomplished director from a technical perspective, which becomes an asset for a film like this (and possibly a liability for How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and its visual engagement is a key asset for the film’s overall ability to keep your attention during what would generally be considered a pretty conventional narrative. And there are certainly times during the course of the 122 minutes that play out like some of the weaker moments from A Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man. Howard is a bit of a sap at his core, and while he is not nearly as obsessed with the manipulative schmaltz of some of his other biopics here, there are definitely still moments that come off a little cringey that seem minted specifically for the purpose of Oscar reels.
We are lucky. These transgressions are few and far between, and are heavily outweighed and outpaced by the rest of Rush, which successfully plays out as a crackling portrait of two driven men and the lengths to which they will go to get their prize. It’s excitingly shot and edited, featuring a script that successfully bucks many of the more egregious genre conventions of both inspirational sports stories and prestige biopics (there are certainly conventions present, but not nearly enough to get in the way of the overall story). Hemsworth and Brühl bring their characters alive. If this is a glimpse into the future of Ron Howard’s directorial career, it is a bright future indeed.