Ford v Ferrari
Ever since legendary actor Steve McQueen left our screens, the appreciation of cars – fast cars -on the silver screen has largely been left to the blocky Fast and Furious films. That franchise seems to dumb down the appreciation of speed and machine into one of explosions and objectification. Ron Howard attempted to bring a new light into “racing movies” with his adequate Rush (2013), but it also fell into some of the same pitfalls as the Fast and Furious movies: they both were too afraid at showing us how and why.
Ford v. Ferrari (2019) is the biographic film about the rivalry between the carmakers Ford and Ferrari in the 24 hours of Le Mans race in the 1960s. The film is taken almost entirely from Ford’s point of view, as we see ex-Le Mans champion Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) patch together a team with race-car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) at the head, so Ford can glamorize their brand with some racing wins.
The film could have easily gone wrong and played it safe in many ways. For one, a film about cars and Ford could have easily strayed into an American chest-thumping propaganda piece, but director James Mangold (Logan (2017), Walk the Line (2005)) and his screenwriters craft a balanced piece showing the corporate agenda of some at the Ford company (such as Josh Lucas’ Leo Beebe) while also showing those who championed risks (premonitory Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal)). Ford v. Ferrari focuses on the creation and modification of their racing car as well as the backroom politics involved, much more than the actual races themselves. There is a care and knowledge infused into the narrative that seems intent at showing you the value and reasoned importance of a race win, and then an explanation of how to get there. By showing viewers the underbelly and walking through what things mean and how they work, audience members start to get an appreciation of the characters’ goals. However, Ford v. Ferrari doesn’t dump this exposition sloppily, instead it uses its lengthy runtime (2 hrs,32 mins) to reveal it in a natural and smooth way.
By having a lengthy runtime, Ford v. Ferrari also has the space for significant character development to occur, and meaty scenes for Damon and Bale to work with. Both are charged with roles that could have easily become testosterone-fueled eye sores; but they are able to find a human and emotional depth in Shelby and Miles that, while not apparent on the outside, is clearly stirring within them. Their friendship forms inadvertently in your eyes, and its seamless execution almost creeps up on you, so that the final emotional moments have startlingly effective impact. The film’s focus on corporate politics also allows brief quality showings from Jon Bernthal and the great Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, the latter of which shows he can capture viewers with a simple droop of his mouth. Letts, in fact, does on screen what I have only seen Laura Linney do before in The Squid and the Whale (2005), which is weep and laugh at the same time; the scene in Ford v. Ferrari is played to much more comedic tones than Linney’s, and yet the triumph of Letts’ action should not go unappreciated.
With a film titled Ford v. Ferrari, one of course expects adrenaline-fueled racing sequences. However, as we can see from their bombardment in action films of today (among them the aforementioned Fast and Furious), viewers can become numb to chases and speed, making each swerve or close shave all the less exciting. By having restraint, and focus on characters, the handful of lengthy racing sequences are instead palpitating to experience. Mangold expressly wanted to use practical effects, instead of CGI, and the immersion into the actual speed that Miles is going at is all the more effective. Certainly the final Le Mans race is one of the most thrilling and adrenaline fueled sequences I’ve experienced this year; refreshing the tropes one normally sees in the finale of an underdog film.
In the end, Ford v. Ferrari was an expertly made film that achieves an incredible balance. By leaning heavily into its characters the film’s races pop out more giving them the weight and eventfulness they require. Bale and Damon’s superbly crafted performances should be lauded as well as Mangold’s ability to find balance in daring and restraint. I came into this film expecting a testosterone-exclusive flick, but came out pleasantly surprised at the reach and depth that it provided.