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ImageOne of the delights to emerge thanks to the scheduling gods of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival was a double feature of Ron Howard on the second day. Press and Industry types had the chance to catch his new Formula One racing drama Rush early in the afternoon and then dash across the Scotiabank lobby for the start of his documentary Made in America, which roamed behind the scenes of Jay-Z’s two-day concert in Philadelphia in 2012.

Now, right off the bat, the two-fer leads to a bit of head scratching. Ron Howard’s helming a loud and sexy action-oriented racing drama and a music documentary in the City of Brotherly Love? There wouldn’t seem to be anything particularly loud or sexy about Howard or the films he’s made up to this point, but let me quickly point out that I, in no way, intend that statement as a diss upon his filmography. Howard gets defined as “competent” and “dependable,” which in the world of film sets him apart from the beloved visionary auteurs, the tent-pole purveyors of bad boy pyrotechnics, even the raucous comic shepherds mass-producing ironically juvenile laughs in dark human sweatshops full of James Franco clones.  How easy it is to forget, for instance, that this is the guy who teamed up with Michael Keaton for Night Shift and Gung Ho, made a splash with Tom Hanks in, well, Splash, and birthed Parenthood with Steve Martin holding down the hood all in the 1980s? He then went for the serious glory in the 1990s, rushing into the fire with Backdraft, going Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, before truly blasting off with Apollo 13 and holding Mel Gibson hostage in Ransom. The aughts proved he was ready to shift from second to third gear with A Beautiful Mind & Cinderella Man (featuring his new go-to guy Russell Crowe), The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons with Hanks again, with Frost/Nixon squeeze in between (signaling the arrival of a screenwriting partnership with Peter Morgan).

That list isn’t meant, in and of itself, to presume that all of those films achieve some mythic standard of critical glory or a particularly stunning box office tally that earns Howard status in the royal pantheon. Neither though, should it damn him with faint praise. He’s a skilled and terribly reliable filmmaker within the studio system, a craftsman of comfort lurking in the shadows of the factory who is content keeping his nose to the grindstone.

So, he can’t step outside the box?

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Rush and Made in America prove that he can, and far more intriguingly, he’s willing to test the market and his own mettle. Rush catches Howard working beyond the cosy confines of the studio system. This is a larger-scale independent project, in terms of having to raise funds for production. Howard and his long-time producing partner Brian Glazer dove in head-first, working with screenwriter Morgan again, to tell yet another true story about legendary figures, daredevils who stared death in the face every time they strapped themselves into their automotive rockets and raced around in circles. And, it would appear, the stories of Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) inspired him. There’s an edginess to Rush, a kinetic to jittery framing that captures the visceral thrills that would entice someone to slide behind the wheel of a Formula One car or, in the case of Hunt, feverishly chase similar albeit fleeting highs off the track.

Hemsworth attracts the lion’s share of the attention here, and it is not entirely undeserved. He has god-like, otherworldly charisma that hasn’t come across onscreen in his other roles (not even his long-maned turns as the Norse Thunder God in the Marvel Universe). He is a creature of heat and passion, not so different than the magnificent cars he drives. It would be difficult to imagine this role, in this movie being the one to break the glass for Hemsworth’s ascent into the celestial firmament, but marks will be made thanks to this work.

Howard borrows some of that juice from Hunt/Hemsworth, but there’s no need to look for a pure representation of him in either the playboy or Lauda’s driven tactician. Lauda seems like a hard-ass, the type who simply never slept, never dared to enjoy a moment of the inevitable glory that came thanks to all of the sacrifice of time and talent. He and Hunt became friends despite his best efforts to remain cloistered away from any and all human interaction. Not exactly how one imagines Howard, a beloved figure in the business. A good man, made better still because he’s not interested in pleasing others. His movies never pander to audiences or the studios behind them.

Which explains, to some extent why, for all of the startling energy that powers two-thirds (or more) of Rush, the film lets up off the gas just before crossing the finish line. There’s no demon he’s chasing, no hellhound on his tail. To rocket through the final flag would mean Howard would have to become something that he’s not. The film is about two perspectives on winning – in work and life – but there is no right or wrong way to do so. Life is not always pitched heated battle between good and evil. There is just the choice each individual makes. Rush, then, might be more about the audience and our journey towards this enlightened state.

By the time I settled into the second part of the Ron Howard double feature, Made in America, which, for all of the outsized personalities sharing the stage at the concert proper (the largest, no surprise being Jay-Z), I had come to accept and appreciate the Howard-ness of that moment. He cuts through all of the potential ego-tripping of the performers, preferring to focus on the everyday stories of people working behind the scenes. The American story, the one that’s not being made or re-made here, is just a continuation of the basic human drama and that is what Howard seeks in every film he takes on.

In the big race that is life, when we all cross the finish line, look around, not for family and friends. No, instead be on the lookout for Ron Howard because I guarantee you he will already be there, waiting with a contented welcoming smile on his face.