Maybe, just maybe, Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan are perfect opposites: one a swinging playboy, the other a cold calculator.
They have twice collaborated on what you might call coin-flip films: movies about dueling, diametrically opposed forces. Their latest, the Formula One thriller “Rush,” is a lot like their “Frost/Nixon,” only on wheels.
Chris Hemsworth plays the English bounder James Hunt, a dashing head of blond hair whose derring-do and high-class accent turn women into mush. Daniel Bruhl plays Niki Lauda, an analytical Austrian with pointy front teeth and a complete dearth of what you might call people skills.
Whereas Hunt is a classic, carousing, big-ego racer, Lauda is a methodical tactician. The film, based on the lives of the two famous racers, captures the climax of their collision in the 1976 world championship that came down to the final race and that also featured a crash that left Lauda’s face terribly burned.
Just as “Frost/Nixon” marveled at the contrast of flashy TV newsman David Frost and the curmudgeonly Richard Nixon, “Rush” (also set in the ’70s) toggles between Hunt and Lauda. Howard’s film is propelled by the clash of styles that repels them from one another, even as their mutual dedication draws them closer.
Racing films often speed inevitably toward cliches of fast-paced living catching up to the men behind the wheel. “Rush” has plenty of that – the adrenaline-fueled death dance required for the checkered flag. (Hunt describes his car as “a little coffin, really, surrounded by high-octane fuel.”) But it veers away toward something much sweeter: a simple ode to rivalry.
“Rush” makes for a terrific double feature with the superb 2010 documentary “Senna,” about Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, which Howard has said he studied in making “Rush.” Formula One, which engenders far more passion in Europe than in the NASCAR-favored U.S., has otherwise seldom turned up in the movies. Most notably, there was the handsomely photographed “Grand Prix” (1966).
While “Rush” has plenty of exciting, highly saturated racing scenes as it makes pit stops through famous Formula One courses, Howard (whose directorial debut, 1977’s “Grand Theft Auto,” was a far less accomplished tale of car chases) is more concerned with the personality conflict, played out at high speed.
Without Thor’s hammer in tow, Hemsworth looks particularly unburdened in a role perfectly suited to his talents and natural bravado. Bruhl, though, is even more compelling. The German-born actor (who also makes a strong impression in the upcoming WikiLeaks drama “The Fifth Estate”), makes Lauda, with a clipped Austrian accent, endearing in his obsessive pursuit.
Howard, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, frames both actors in close-up, letting the pingpong of their competition fill the movie. There are other good supporting performances (Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara as the drivers’ wives), but the film belongs to Hemsworth and Bruhl as they weave through a tumultuous racing season.
It’s not only one of the better racing films, it’s one of Howard’s best. For Morgan, who also penned another distinct sports film, 2009’s “The Damned United,” it’s yet another example of his great talent for taking seemingly minor true stories and expanding them operatically.
Whatever the nature of Howard and Morgan’s collaboration, it seems to be pushing them – like Hunt and Lauda – to greater heights.
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