The best of Ron Howard’s films – Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon – are all about essentially the same thing.
Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, and their pals find a way to overcome aging and death. The Odyssey is crippled by “a minor defect that occurred two years before [Jim Lovell] was even named the flight’s commander,” and it’s the teamwork, ingenuity, and resolve of the men and women of NASA that get the stranded astronauts back to earth safely. The love of his wife and friends brings John Nash back from insanity. JIm Braddock overcomes the Great Depression and his boxing foes by sheer grit, determination, and devotion to his family. David Frost’s bubbly showman gets the best of Richard Nixon’s steely-eyed, calculating, disgraced president. In Ron Howard’s films, the good-hearted human spirit is the most powerful thing in the universe, transcending fate, technology, biology, and vice. Put even more simply, heart beats head in Howard’s films every time.
Even Arrested Development, which Howard executive produces and narrates, is, ultimately, about a selfish, scheming family whose love for each other wins out in the end.
Rush, then, Ron Howard’s latest film, fits in perfectly with the rest of Howard’s work. The film chronicles the real life rivalry between European Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s. Hunt, in Howard’s film (an important qualification to make as Howard’s historical films are only ever lightly so), is the showy playboy, all fire and passion, sure of himself and his innate ability to be the best race car driver in the world. Lauda is all head, technically adept at setting up his race car and playing the odds and eschewed by the other drivers for being humorless and unlikeable. You can guess on whose side Howard’s film ultimately falls.
The film really shines when it homes in on Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry, contrasting their individual styles of handling all of life’s problems and developing their relationship through the years. Hemsworth and Brühl are great as Hunt and Lauda respectively, and, since Brühl’s character is given the chance to grow into the kind of person Howard’s films embrace, Lauda’s story and performance are especially engaging. Character growth is always preferable to character stagnation even when that stagnation is ably portrayed, like it is by Hemsworth here.
Howard’s predilection for the human spirit is at full force in Rush even to the point of not giving the Hunt character much room for growth. He’s already the kind of guy who embraces life and makes decisions with his gut instead of his heart. The film goes so far as to affirm his brash lifestyle, which wreaked havoc on his relationships and health. Marriage is even depicted as a kind of prison for the young Hunt, and it’s only after his marriage ends that he is able to re-ascend the ranks of racing’s royalty.
Stories about the triumph of the human spirit aren’t necessarily unwelcome in our megaplexes. In fact, they tend to turn profits and win year-end awards. We like to feel like we’re gonna make it somehow even when the odds seemed stacked impossibly against us. Our own predilections for feel-good stories is only dangerous if we only choose them or if we preference them in an attempt to shield ourselves from real problems and inexplainable injustice. The world doesn’t always make sense, and our lives don’t always work out the way we hope. We shouldn’t tell ourselves otherwise all the time.
Films about the triumph of the human spirit are like the book of Proverbs. They depict a world where good prevails in the end even if there are hiccups along the way. They give us encouragement to “not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will receive a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Such films are eschatological in nature. They are analogous to how things will be in the end.
But we also need films more like the book of Ecclesiastes, films that depict a world where things don’t make sense, where evil prevails for a time, where death follows old age, where astronauts don’t make it home, and where deceitful presidents get away with it. Such films are very present. They are about the world we live in now where we need hope to get through the day, where we have to learn to appreciate the simple beauty and joys of life and have our spirits buoyed by them. We have to “enjoy life with [our spouses], whom [we] love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given us under the sun – all [our] meaningless days” (Ecclesiastes 9:9), because sometimes “the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).