Director Ron Howard’s next movie Rush is set to release in late September, one of the most eagerly awaited movies this year post the summer season. And if you haven’t heard, Sony has already announced that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks would reunite for the third movie based on the Dan Brown novels, Inferno (yep, they correctly giving The Lost Symbol a skip), which was released just a few months back. A December 2015 release date has been planned, the date when Robert Langdon shall save the world once again!
But while Ron Howard, with his established and influential presence in Hollywood, surfaces in the news now and then, one does not really need an occasion to look back at some of the great works of this talented director. When Ron Howard went up the stage to accept his Academy Award for Best Director for A Beautiful Mind in 2001, his acceptance speech was much like his movies: factual, brief and a right mix of statements and exclamations. The only light moment was when he recounted how his late mother had predicted this win for him, which left the audience sighing; not for long though. They broke into a titter as Howard explained how such parental predictions had been a part of every single movie he had directed till date. That’s Ronald William Howard for you, an actor, director and producer of some of the most memorable works of Hollywood, who keeps things apparently low-profile, yet remarkably relevant.
Ron Howard’s body of work is vast and while his acting prowess has been up for display since he was five, his directorial projects did not take off in a serious fashion until he made a splash with Splash in 1984, which was a resounding success in those days. Since then however, Howard’s movies (ones that he directed at least) have been predominantly character sketches in crisis… most of them Oscar-worthy!
The ill-fated mission to the moon has been immortalised by the flawed use of the “Houston, we have a problem” quote by Tom Hank’s character Commander James Lovell (it was CMP backup Jack Swigert, who first voiced his concerns in similar, if not identical terms). Nevertheless, Apollo 13 was a brilliant summarisation of the dangerous mission for the layman. The timeline of the movie begins with Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, and picks pace as Jim Lovell and his team begin to make a third attempt at the satellite. Things go horribly wrong on the third day of the mission; the landing on the moon has to be aborted and now it’s a race against time to get the three astronauts safely back home, alive.
What began as a routine, straight-faced documentary was suddenly thrown haywire by the freak explosion aboard the Service Module. People’s faces changed expressions, the dialogues started getting sharper, even the background score quickened. There was plenty of scientific jargon floating around, lots of abbreviations and laws of physics and space. Ed Harris, who played the role of the Flight Director for the mission, later claimed that he felt like he was cramming for his final exams to deliver the role. The movie was however, in the safety of a bunch of the great and the good of Hollywood: Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise. This was essentially a technical film. So though the astronauts and the scientists at Mission Control were speaking Greek and Latin, and were not allowed to lapse into hysterics, one only had to look at the general chaos; the frenzied discussions, the frowns, the full ashtrays and the finger-tappingss, to gather the weight of the situation. Apollo 13, however, belongs mostly to Tom Hanks. As Commander Jim Lovell, Tom Hanks was the epitome of a good leader and the captain of his men and his ship. Hanks is an outstanding actor anyway and he effortlessly alternated between the jocular to the anxious to the commanding. Apollo 13 could have easily been a first-class documentary for the Discovery Channel (and it has been so), but Ron Howard made the best of the actual plotline, fraught with high-level physics, into a gripping account of man’s ambitions and tenacity.
A Beautiful Mind
This is what I shall always remember Ron Howard for. As also Russell Crowe. A Beautiful Mind was supposed to be nothing more than a biography of the brilliant mathematician John Nash Jr. There are the usual roadblocks and the not-so-usual hurdles in the man’s life, but don’t they come in everyone’s life? Only everyone doesn’t end up winning the Nobel one day. This movie is a simple narration of the story of an extremely gifted man, who fought his way through the innumerable challenges life threw at him, to reach the pinnacle. And that is what makes A Beautiful Mind so amazingly inspiring.
Though Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer played their relatively meagre parts well, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly absolutely sealed the show. Russell Crowe owns one of the best chameleonic characteristics in Hollywood, slipping effortlessly between the outright, maniac evil to the baby-faced naïve workman. In A Beautiful Mind he used his skills to bring to life a vulnerable man, a man of immense potential, slowed down along the path to his well-deserved greatness by the crippling effects of schizophrenia. He is marginally eccentric right from the start, but the dedication and pure passion for his beloved subject of study shows on his face like a baby’s who has been given candies. The constant hallucinations of his roommate Herman, the latter’s niece and that of the uncomfortably mysterious Parcher nearly break him, but never in the movie have things been taken to the level of histrionics. Though he is often baffled and visibly upset by the torment he had caused to his family, there is always a side to him that is good and pure and somewhere, deep down, you know (though that could also be possibly because you know what happens to the actual John Nash in real life) that good will come to this man. It is this overbearing feeling of victory in the face of the seemingly unsurmountable troubles that makes A Beautiful Mind a truly touching movie, one that offers hope and faith in all things good and true.
The trouble with Cinderella Man was that the hangover from A Beautiful Mind was blatantly evident. In the year which was swept by movies as diverse as Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, Capote, Crash and Walk the Line, the period treatment of Cinderella Man was lost in the melee. That apart, on a standalone basis this movie was another piece of art. Russell Crowe shone through again, reprising the role of a dead-beat, ordinary citizen James Braddock, with extraordinary abilities. Braddock never breaks down, he never throws in the towel (quite literally so, as he was an ace boxer in better times) in the face of any form of ignominy and desperation (remember the scene where he swallows his well-earned pride and begs for money from his old boxing friends; that, in my opinion, is one of the most touching scenes in the history of Hollywood, which never fails to moisten the eyes of the hardiest of men; Crowe’s soft features as they break into tears is testimony of how lucky we are to have such a fine actor in our generation). He had been, and still was a fighter par excellence. Renee Zellweger as Mae Braddock, with the impeccable New Jersey accent blended easily into the Depression-era of the 1930’s, and perfectly complimented the silent resilience of James, while the staunch, unconditional friendship of Joe Gould, played by the talented Paul Giamatti brought further emotion into the movie and won him an Oscar nomination. Like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man is a victory of human spirit and courage…. and another masterfully created movie by Ron Howard.
Though Ron Howard has to his credit quite a few commercial successes, most notably The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, both adaptations of Dan Brown’s works, he will be best remembered for the more humane movies that he has directed till date. His protagonists have been traditionally polite and quiet individuals, up against odds. The fallibility of man and his eventual resurrection is a recurring theme, one that Howard depicts so delicately, that you end up feeling immensely humbled… Frost/Nixon being another casing point.
Howard’s upcoming project however, appears anywhere but up his street. Rush deals with the fierce rivalry between Ferrari’s intense Niki Lauda and McLaren-Ford’s brash James Hunt on the blazing Formula One race tracks of the 1970s, mainly the famous 1976 season. There are, not one but two strong characters head-butting each other in this plot and neither is anything like Jim Lovell or John Nash or James Braddock. These are two people who are ready to die in the bid to outsmart each other. The sport of car racing is highly calculative and technical, it is dangerous in a raw sense and most importantly, despite being a team-sport, it mostly boils down to the split-second reflexes of the man or woman behind the wheels. In movie-making terms, the universe of car racing has all the ingredients for a commercial blockbuster. Ron Howard seems to have embarked on a very interesting journey indeed. Sports movies usually manage to create a strong buzz and draw in the initial crowds, and ones with super fast cars are bound to find a larger audience. One can only hope that the glamour and speed of Formula One would be tempered by the subtlety of the individual characters involved, as showcased by the initial trailers. After all, that is what Ron Howard does best.