Ford v Ferrari: “They don’t (quite) make them like this anymore.”
James Mangold’s latest film, Ford v Ferrari, is many things. It’s a tale of friendship, a sweeping commentary on American exceptionalism & consumerism, and a highly entertaining film.
At the core, it is about two individuals’ love affairs with racing.
Let me interject something for context: Those who know me well understand that I’m not much of a sports person. This is a dramatic understatement when it comes to racing. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than watch any form of cars go round & round in a circle for hours.
Why, then, would I go to see Mangold’s movie about an event that occurred, truly, even before my parents’ time?
Well, Mangold’s films aren’t *only* what’s in a preview.
Walk the Line was marketed as a Johnny Cash biopic, but in reality went deeply into the psyche of a tortured man struggling with paternal abuse and addiction. 3:10 to Yuma served as a great Western remake, but it morphed into a masterful commentary on the dynamic between fathers and sons, between what’s right and what’s easy. I’m sure that many other James Mangold films have had similar depth. I can only speak to those that I’ve seen.
Ford v Ferrari begins with a voiceover of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) describing what it’s like when one hits his stride driving in a race. His description serves as a metaphor for the movie (which, like the drivers, takes some significant time to hit a certain stride) but it also sets the stage for the movie’s central question: How far we (as individuals, as companies, or even as countries) are willing to go to achieve inner peace coupled with outward success, while additionally championing strong performance? Moreover, what exactly do we accomplish in the process?
Ford v Ferrari starts as such: Ford Motor Company wishes to partner with Ferrari when it is lagging behind in more than one area- Sales, yes, but specifically, race car driving. After being not-so-politely snubbed by Ferrari during a trip to Italy- (through Jon Bernthal’s Lee Iacocca), Ford realizes tough competition is on. In true American fashion, Ford (the businessman, not the company, this time) - who’s disgruntled by the company’s dwindling financially and commercially, decides, Screw it. If I can’t join him, then I’ll build a better race car and beat them at their own race!
What an American mentality.
Enter, once more, Carroll Shelby, (this time as an engineer and salesman) and the gifted driver, Ken Miles. Shelby witnesses Miles’ racing talent and vigorous spirit, and enlists him, as a driver, then as an engineer and a mechanic. Christian Bale plays Ken Miles as a man who doesn’t back down from challenges, but invites them. Still, Shelby must earn his trust. Thus begins one of the most satisfying on screen friendships I’ve witnessed in film this year.
Something this film does well is that it builds a seemingly simple task into a complex problem gradually, all while never losing it’s watchability.
The challenge of winning is never simple enough to be conquered by two intelligent, talented men. No, it takes more trial and error, more throws at the wall to see what sticks. Ford, foremost the businessman, wants his race car and his driver marketed a certain way. He doesn’t like Ken Miles, or perhaps, that Miles cares more about engineering and winning races strategically then marketing a “brand,” or, doing things, “the American way,” for show. For performance. For glory. Miles, with his [kind of] “beatnik” look of a skinny, slightly underfed artist, and almost manic concentration, is the heartbeat of the operation, never once caring whether or not he’s liked. And caring deeply instead about winning.
Shelby, in his own right, too, clashes with Ford. He’s been a professional driver but had that taken away by a heart condition. Shelby and Miles seem to understand racing for the true sport that it is, and ultimately, that it’s just as much about the driver behind the wheel as it is about vehicle construction.
Much as they appear overreaching and disgruntled, you can understand Ford and Iacocca’s vision, too. Say what you will, but during this time in history, Mangold’s film tells us that America was nothing if not unapologetic and competitive.
This back and forth argument, combined with human elements of familial dynamics, selling a good, effective product (and ultimately an event) all while struggling to balance competitive drive and comradeship, make for some of the film’s most entertaining, compelling scenes. That, coupled with well-edited racing elements, gorgeous, heightened shots of California desert and European race tracks, make Ford v Ferrari a well-done film- all while being a stylish, watchable movie. Sitting in the theater I thought to myself, “At last, a watchable, somewhat relatable film about reaching a knowable, and dare I say, innately human, American goal.”
That goal? Winning to prove a point. :)
Fan as I am of both Damon and Bale (they’ve provided performances that have given me fascinating, charismatic, flawed men to watch for over ten years now) I was surprised, still, by how believable their friendship was on screen. They’re talented, and they play talented, forthright men. Sure. But even more so, together they prove that male friendship can be based, rather than on assumed machismo, on mutual respect, honesty, shared zest for life, and integrity. Moved too, I was, by the supporting performances. I loved Miles’ scenes with his young son, played with affection and smarts by rising star Noah Jupe.
I mentioned at the forefront that Ford v Ferrari takes some time to get going. Once it does, however, you’ll be on the edge of your seat, grinning because of funny, snappy, believable conversation and a story that moves well, gives you charters to root for an event to, even arrogantly, believe in, and at last, swells to a believable, if even unexpected, conclusion.
The result leaves us more than merely entertained; we’re intrigued. We want to know more. That, to me, is the mark of an entertaining film and a very good one.