An ode to passion and a tribute to pure craftsmanship is what director James Mangold drives at in his thrilling and entertaining historical film about a monumental period in motorsport. Peel away the first layer though and it’s clear shots are being fired.
In this fraught time in movie business where many feel Cinema (with the most capital of ‘Cs) is under attack, it’s difficult to assess Ford v Ferrari as anything other than a lament about the business of movie-making. This is especially so for a director who waded into the world of IP, and while leaving with Oscar nomination for ‘Logan’, it’s clear he did not escape the waters unscathed. There are traces of regret in ‘Ford v Ferrari’ that speak to Mangold’s own compromises during the making of ‘The Wolverine’.
As slick and enjoyable as this film gets, there is a veneer of melancholy that becomes ever more palpable story takes shape. Set mostly in the first half of the ‘60s, the plot basically sees gifted automobile purists, driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) get into a union with Ford Motor Company whose sole aim is to beat Ferrari at the grueling Le Mans Grand Prix circuit after merger with the cash-strapped Italian company goes wrong.
Enzo Ferrari is the bad guy, right? He plays a little dirty and insults Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) with venomous barbs. Well if you are pro-capitalist and pray to the soul-sucking altar of branding and marketing, sure. But as we join the swaggering Lee Iacocca (John Berenthal) on a mini-tour of Ferrari’s factory, where cars are all basically had crafted with loving tenderness, we can tell where Mangold’s heart lies. By this point, we have already been inside the larger more automated Ford factory where the line between man and machine is blurred.
Henry Ford II wants to win. But Miles reminds us that winning has different definitions in different books as he remains wary of the blood-sucking suits that scamper around the motor company president. He’s not a people person. It’s probably why is his mechanic shop can’t sustain the family and why racing isn’t doing much better. Described as journeyman as he shoots to victory they first time we see him in action, his rugged and abrasive persona can’t even mesh smoothly with his only real friend, Damon’s charming Shelby, who he hurls wrench at in anger after a dose of hard truths.
The eccentric Miles does have to tone it down. The cowboy hat-wearing Shelby, who can talk his way into selling the same car three times is no less a purist than Miles; him being a former a driver and winner of Le Mans in 1959. The question then becomes how much compromise is too much? And when does it start to hurt the art? It’s not a question Mangold really answers because he is staunchly in Miles’ camp. You also get the sense that he would have engineered a different ending for this film were it not for the constraints of history.
Though Miles has the target on his back because of his disregard for brand, Shelby is the one that does a lot of battle with the suits, most notably Josh Lucas’s almost serpentine Leo Beebe, a senior executive vice president of Ford. Henry Ford II cuts a more realistic figure of the average executive – one appreciative of heart and soul of artistic endeavor but still ultimately swayed by the data of the marketing execs.
The ideas in ‘Ford v Ferrari’ are what will give it staying power but technical acumen make it extremely entertaining in the moment. It’s a legitimate sports movie with the mechanics of a classic underdog movie. And that legitimacy is bolstered by the minutia of the motorsport craft and the kinetic staging of the race sequences.
Most of the final act focuses on Le Mans ‘66, a race that lasts an almost impossible 24 hours and our minds finely tuned to the stakes as Ford looks to best the sleek crimson contingent from Ferrari. We have already gotten a sense of Mangold’s gripping direction of race sequences; complete with wides of the race cars burning rubber on the asphalt and the shots that suck us into the intense solitude of what is almost a gladiatorial venture. The depiction of the final race is its own kind of marvel, with the exhilarating set-piece still giving us time to consider the wonder and precision that went into recreating a bygone era.
Despite the technical achievements that color the finale to ‘Ford v Ferrari’, I think it takes the performances to really give us a reason to care about the story. Bale has been great in the past but this the first time I’ve found him truly enjoyable spend time with, with this rugged appeal as a character Mangold all but deifies. We also spend significant time with Mile’s wife (Caitriona Balfe) and his son (Noah Jupe) and it’s surprisingly more the filler, adding more texture to a character for reasons that will become obvious.
Damon has seldom been better playing Shelby, who has little by way of a personal life. His family is motorsport and the auto mechanic industry. Well, there’s Miles too. The two bicker and fight and overflow with creative friction. Bale is a willing pivot to get most out of Damon and their infectious chemistry that gives birth to a warm friendship and thousands of revs per minute that keep us absorbed through to the very end.