Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
I love how a good movie can make me care about things I don't give a hoot about. Like race car driving. Google's Distance Calculator teaches me that I live three miles uptown from where the Molson Indy takes place here in Toronto every summer. Three whole miles away and still, I close all the windows that weekend because of what sounds like an angry swarm of bees outside. Boys and their obnoxious toys.
Why then was I so absorbed by "Rush", a race car movie featuring the 1970's rivalry between two European Formula One drivers? I think it's because its director, Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) see in their main characters an opportunity to say something deeper about the nature of competition, making this a more thoughtful sports-related audience picture.
Waxing existential philosophy right off the top, Austrian driver Niki Lauda informs us that twenty-five men begin each Formula One season, while an average of two will die by its end. "What kind of person does a job like this? Not normal men for sure: rebels, lunatics, dreamers". Indeed. Lauda's one of our two leads, but the one whose perspective we experience much of the picture. Cold and calculating, he's a student of the game, spouting a constant riff of facts and figures, probabilities and percentages.
He's played by Spaniard Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds) in the kind of arresting character performance that I think audiences will warm up to the way they have in recent times with Christoph Waltz. One of the many innovative exercises actors may use to prepare for a role is to imagine and then embody their characters in animal form. Entire sessions devoted to slithering around and crawling about a studio. If you've seen this movie already, you know exactly where I'm going with this because even the screenplay has a great deal of fun mining Lauda's uncanny resemblance to that of a rat, his front teeth jutting out across an overbite that seem to work as extensions of his wounding words that gnaw straight through your skin into your marrow.
One of the many fine dialogue exchanges comes in the Italian countryside in a ride Lauda's hitched with his eventual wife. It's a wonderful sequence where he annoys and disarms her with his cerebral diagnosis of everything that is wrong with her car:
"How can you tell?", she says.
"God gave me an okay mind, but a really good ass, which can feel everything in a car".
His main rival, England's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) could not be a more polar opposite to Lauda. I imagine the character description going something like, "Mid 20's male, athletic, looks the way sex tastes." A playboy fueled by booze and drugs, he lives forever in-the-moment in a relentless pursuit of another orgasm. While 90% of Lauda's game is half mental, Hunt's methodology on the racetrack is a rock 'n' roll ritual where he gets loaded, dances with cheerleaders, throws up real good and then drives like a maniac to the finish line. It's not so much that Hunt wishes to cheat death as much as he hopes for it to choke on his fumes as he weaves recklessly past it.
Hemsworth, appearing as Thor and Captain Kirk in some of the highest-grossing movies of the last couple years, does a good job of coming back down to earth to play a real and troubled human character. If the women in Hunt's life in this movie appear indistinct (I wondered where our oversexed nurse had gone or if she was just sporting a new do and big hat!) I think it's supposed to reflect how Hunt quite possibly couldn't tell them all apart either. The movie deals about as tactfully as it can with the fact that Hunt essentially sold his wife to actor Richard Burton for the cost of the divorce settlement.
From 1970 through 1976, "Rush" whizzes and whirls through the dramatic races and events in the lives of both men, capturing the feel of the period in that uncanny way so many good films have done in recent years from "Almost Famous" to "Argo" that go beyond haircuts, clothes and popular music, and into the very shooting and editing styles of the time. It's as though Howard wants us to feel like this is a lost film of the 70's, and it feels like one.
I did not know much about racing going into this movie, and I'm not sure I know more about it now (how does that point system work, exactly?) but the use of broadcast voices and title cards which serve to narrate and place us on several different racetracks in countries ranging from Spain to England to Japan, supply us with enough information and context before every major racing sequence. Oh, and what about those racing sequences! Howard and his crew go to extraordinary lengths to get all that footage just right. Watching those old races on Youtube afterwards, it's uncanny just how good this film is in the way it recreates some very complicated choreography and dramatic crashes. Except in this movie, Howard's got cameras recording footage from about every possible angle: from helmets, hoods, tires, even inside engines and pistons.
Like most sports narratives, this one leads us through to the "big race", but unlike most films of this nature, it takes a bold step by questioning the notion of winning at all costs, the second film to do so this year after the great family drama "At Any Price". What are you not willing to do to grab a fleeting moment of public attention? And what does winning mean if your sense of self-worth is in the gutter the rest of the time? What Hunt and Lauda have in common from the outset is that they're rebels of privileged families, uncomfortable with the idea of leading quiet, anonymous lives in private dens counting stacks of inherited money. And while Hunt's rebel yell of a life continues through into the end credits, it is Daniel Brühl as Lauda who comes to grow on us as a man who goes into racing with the same axe to grind, but who comes to learn something about himself and about life. What a good movie.