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Rush the Exception to Most Formulaic Hollywood Storytelling

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2013 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
<i>Rush</i> the Exception to Most Formulaic Hollywood Storytelling

DVD Release Date: January 28, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: September 27, 2013 (wide)
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 123 min. 
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Christian McKay

A formulaic movie about Formula 1 racing might sound like the sort of thing that would appeal only to Formula 1 fanatics, while a story about dueling racers might sound like another take on Top Gun and its ilk. Who feels the need for speed when we've seen movie after movie about rival protagonists who push each other to be their best?

If you're thinking such thoughts about Rush, you're right to be cautious. But the new film from director Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) is such an accomplished piece of mainstream commercial filmmaking that it’s difficult to dislike. Indeed, as the rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, Joyeux Noel) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) heats up, it's hard not to get caught up in the high-speed, high-risk competition between the two men. If that weren't enough, Rush explores not only the will to be the best, but how to be the best—whether disciplined training precludes indulgence and a hedonistic lifestyle.

Set during the 1970s, Rush reflects not only the rise of Formula 1 racing, but the loose sexual morals of the pre-AIDS culture. Hunt, an English playboy, has no trouble bedding women, as the film's early scenes make clear (contrasted with Howard's well-known family entertainments like Splash, Cocoon, Willow and Apollo 13, Rush is racy in more ways than one.) But Hunt's success with the ladies isn't matched by his performance on the racetrack. He's having trouble landing corporate sponsors and moving up through the racing ranks.

Niki Lauda is Hunt's ultimate target. Not only is Lauda a more successful driver, he's a disciplined professional, devoting himself to a lifestyle that he believes is required to reach the top tier of his profession. Rather than stay out late partying, Lauda lives a quiet, dull life off the track. He also has something to prove to himself and to his father, who once told him he'd never succeed in pursuing his passion for racing.

Hunt doesn't have those same obstacles to overcome. Blessed with good looks and great driving skills, he's determined to topple Lauda from his perch atop the Formula 1 rankings. Along the way, he celebrates his victories by indulging in women, alcohol and drugs, even after he marries (what's the use in winning races if you can't party hard afterward?).

Lauda maintains an intense discipline in his life, but he too find a spouse (Alexandra Maria Lara, The Reader). However, he can't quite reconcile himself to the contentment that marital union brings. When Lauda declares that happiness is "the enemy" in life, you might agree with another character's response to Lauda’s statement: "Then you’ve already lost."

Although neither lead performance requires deep complexity, Bruhl and Hemsworth are convincing as Lauda and Hunt, never more so than when one of them faces a dire setback. Howard carries his audience through agonizing scenes that show one character walking the edge between life and death, yet the film allows audiences to come out of the theater more exhilarated than exhausted.

Morgan's script pits Lauda's lifestyle choices against Hunt's, but it refuses to make a judgment about either man's pursuit of the pinnacle of their profession. It's up to viewers to decide which man, if either, is to be admired. That may trouble audiences looking for a clear moral to this story, as may the portrayal of Lauda's and Hunt's wives, who have little to do but watch helplessly as their husbands risk death and danger.

In Morgan's telling of the two racers' stories, envy touches their rivalry, and moments of humility are few and far between. Neither driver lives a pristine life off the track, but their pursuit of excellence makes for a thrilling ride.

Excellence is in itself admirable. However, the racers don’t acknowledge any divine source for their talents, even when discussing their own mortality. The closest the film comes is when one character remembers telling a priest to get lost (but he uses much more colorful language). That makes Rush, as good as it is, inferior to the recent documentary Senna, a God-infused story of a driver with an intense faith in God that informed his approach to racing.

Competitiveness can be positive if it helps us achieve good things with the right motives, but the drive to be the best can easily tip into sin. Titus tells us to "show true humility toward all men" because "at one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy" (3:3).

The characters in Rush might not be God-focused, but the film is nevertheless the sort of compelling commercial entertainment that is by far the exception, not the rule, when it comes to Hollywood storytelling. Seeing a film put together with such skill is a reminder that Howard, who has made great films for family audiences, can deliver more mature storytelling that feels effortless as it unfolds. The filmmakers (Howard plus screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire)) are among the best in the business, and with Rush, they've made one of the 2013's best movies.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers): 

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the f-word; other foul language; a middle finger extended
  • Drinking/Smoking: A racing team owner drinks; celebratory drinking; smoking and drug use; it's noted that race sponsors don’t include cigarette brands or condoms; a wife tells her husband she knows about his "drinking, dope, infidelity and booze;" a character says, "I shall be getting drunk"
  • Sex/Nudity: Two people have sex in a shower, and a woman's breast is seen; a man and woman, bare backsides exposed, fall onto a mattress; a logo reads "sex;" women wear skimpy outfits; more sex and exposed breasts
  • Violence/Crime: Violent racing crashes; severe injuries and treatments are shown; vomiting
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: Marriage is said to sound "awful;" a wedding; marital spats, and the disintegration of a marriage; discussion of racers' closeness to death; last rites are administered; a man says he told a priest to "f--- off;" talk of how a perceived curse can actually be a blessing; a confession of envy

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: September 27, 2013