Maybe this is the way it’s always been, but to me, Hollywood has never felt more like a smoke and mirrors factory than it has in recent years. The goal of the thousands of people that it takes to produce a major motion picture seems to be: make sure there are enough distractions onscreen to gloss over terrible screenwriting, acting, and directorial choices. In the case of Rush, the latest big ticket movie from director Ron Howard, the goal was to fill each frame with either ample amounts of exposed flesh or candy-coated shots of vintage Formula One race cars. Make sure, too, to edit the footage to within an inch of its life and give the camera a case of the shakes. All the better to distract viewers from an overwritten script barely held together by the actors spewing out Peter Morgan’s reheated dialogue.
The film, which fictionalizes the rivalry between competing Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, comes off like one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory. Here was a chance to showcase a sport that many Americans are still completely blind to, as well as try to approximate onscreen the titular feeling of being in a car going 100+ MPH around a treacherous track. Instead, the races are, by and large, dispensed with quickly in place of concentrating on the behind-the-scenes turmoil that was Hunt’s personal life and the tension between he and Lauda. But even those moments never come across as earned or often even dramatic. Not even the easy-going charm of Chris Hemsworth as Hunt or Daniel Bruhl’s fine-tuned and perfectly rigid performance as Lauda can stir up the right amount of curiosity to see how this biographical story will play out.
Howard only brings the film to life while depicting Lauda’s struggles through recovery, injured after a horrific wreck at the German Grand Prix that leaves him with third-degree burns. The scenes of him going through treatment are some of the most harrowing of the year. As well, the director finally comes close to bringing about a cinematic rush during the final race of the film. The rest of the competitions — apart from the one that depicts Lauda’s accident — never really leave any kind of impression.
The canniest choice that Howard made in this film was bringing former Dogme 95 acolyte Anthony Dod Mantle on board as cinematographer. Shooting digitally, the Brit helps bring to life the desaturated colors of the era with real flair. It often feels like flipping through a box of Kodak prints from 1976. But like everything Howard has done post-2001, and every film Morgan has had his name attached to, the thought I couldn’t shake was how good this could have been if other people had made it — the raw thrills that Danny Boyle or Martin Scorsese could have brought to the story (the shots of the pool balls smashing into each other in The Color of Money are more pulse-quickening than almost any crash here). Or if the script had been stripped of its absolutely unnecessary voiceover and made as sleek and aerodynamic as the cars in the film. Alas, we are given what we are given. And in this case, it’s a stalled auto.