Friday, 27 September 2013

Rush Review

I hate driving. Absolutely hate it. I'm not a terrible driver, but I can't process more than one thing at a time and I have the reflexes of a particularly stupid brick. Every time I drive to or from work I am acutely aware that I could die at any second - that I'm never closer to death than when I'm behind the wheel. It's not my greatest fear, but it's definitely my most frequent.

As such there were quite a few times in Rush - Ron Howard's new F1 racing flick - that I pretty much freaked out. There were nailmarks in my armrests and teethmarks in my fist. We see shots from drivers' perspectives - the road obscured by heavy rain and, at one point, concussion - which will fuel my nightmares for months. I'm incredibly glad we saw it on a Friday so I didn't have to drive for a few days.
It's tense, in other words. Cripplingly so. But that tension leads to a truly thrilling experience.

That's probably what you're supposed to feel every time you watch racing - thrills and tension - but I never have before. For me, Formula 1 is second only to football in terms of sports that are boring to watch but impossible to avoid. It's just little boxes going round in circles! The boxes move quite fast, and occasionally the front two boxes swap places or something, but I find it so repetitive and dull.
Rush quickly yanked me to the edge of my seat, though, by making it about the men inside those little boxes - flawed, often unpleasant, strangely heroic men. Knowing who it was that was careering round that track - not just their names but their characters and lives - changed everything, and I was completely caught up in it.

Rush is a true story but, uninterested as I am in racing, I had never even heard of Niki Lauda or James Hunt. That probably made things even tenser for me, as the opening minutes make it clear that something horrible is going to happen but I had no idea what. When something horrible did happen, that just made things worse because, now that the stakes were so high, I didn't know if it was over or just beginning.
Howard has made a powerful film from this real-life story. Quite often, biopics can feel kind of aimless, because the real world doesn't follow narrative structures. But, because both characters are pushing towards one specific goal - being World Champion - the drama here is always sharply focused. The film itself moves like one of its races, with Hunt ahead for a moment, then Lauda, then Hunt, and the sharp editing driving everything forwards quickly and economically. There are crash-cuts that skip whole months and entire races depicted in just one shot - it's breathlessly energetic.

One brilliant touch is that, while a digital film, Rush has been treated to look like actual period footage. It's softer and slightly grainy (sometimes, at least), which not only makes everything feel more authentic, but allows Howard to intercut the film with real race footage. That choice adds even more to the urgency of what's going on, as it's clear that at least some of what we're seeing is really happening and not just special effects. And, though it may be limited to this '70s look, Rush never seems limited by it - it all looks stunning.

Before we get to the actors, I should probably admit that I have a fairly enormous man-crush on Chris Hemsworth. Honestly, so long as he got his shirt off at least once I was going to enjoy this film. But Rush shows us that he's far more than just a ridiculously handsome face; the guy can act, too. James Hunt is a smooth, loud, confident charmer - as effortless and laid back with the press as he is with the ladies - but Hemsworth finds quiet ways to show us the uncertainty and nervousness beneath. It's a terrific performance - both grandiose and subtle - and, as well as getting his shirt off, we even get to see Thor's arse!
But, great as Hemsworth is, Daniel Brühl steals the show as Niki Lauda. Both men are pretty horrible at times, but Lauda is the more obviously unlikable. A self-centred perfectionist with no time for other people (to say nothing of his silly teeth), Lauda could have easily been played as a villain or as a tragedy, but Brühl, plus the strong script and Howard's excellent direction, really makes us understand and root for this strange, awkward character. This is a man who seems almost incapable of showing his emotions, yet the movie makes us feel them every step of the way.
During the final race, it's impossible to root for just one - we're so thoroughly invested in these characters that we want both to win. It's exhilarating and strange to have a movie - particularly a sports movie - where the question is not whether the main character will win, but which one.

It's not every film that can make you enjoy a sport you have no interest in, and it's not every biopic that can make you care about people you've never heard of, but Rush overcomes both those hurdles easily. Though it may deal with racing, at its core it's a film about people and, by grounding every moment in two phenomenal central performances, it's an extremely good one. Everything in Rush is compelling, from cars spinning out of control to people just talking. There's such great energy to it that it's impossible not to get swept up.
Whether normal people will be as violently affected by the driving scenes as I was, or if that's purely due to my hangups, remains to be seen. But even without that, this is a smart, forceful film, and a brilliant portrait of what was either an intense rivalry or the world's strangest friendship. It says a lot that, while parts made me want to close my eyes, it's such fantastic cinema that I couldn't look away. This film took a lot out of me; but it was worth it.

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