With a great cast and some really fun visuals, ‘Ford v Ferrari’ makes an argument for what the modern American movie will look like.
We open with a low angle shot, from the point of view of a car. Headlights cut through a blurry and foggy street, and Matt Damon rubs his eyes. He gets to the finish line, gripping at his chest. He breathes through the pain. We cut to Damon, playing the real figure Carroll Shelby, as he sits in a doctor’s office. Too much adrenaline and excitement, and his heart could fail. Shelby can choose to end his racing career or to end his life. But that doesn’t mean Shelby will stay away from racing.
Christian Bale as Ken Miles yells at a racing regulator. Arbitrary changes to arbitrary rules have resulted in Miles looking at a disqualification. After yelling at the regulator, he grabs a hammer and beats the trunk back into shape. He will qualify, and he will win. No cost is too high. As Miles fights for his ability to race, he also fights to have a living doing what he loves, racing. How else will he provide for his wife and son? And will he be able to live up to the expectations of his son, played by an incredibly talented Noah Jupe?
Finally, there is Henry Ford II, who is still in his father’s shadow. When Enzo Ferrari successfully pulls a fast one on the Ford Motor Company, Ford decides that he needs to win. Sure, Ferrari’s cars are handmade and designed for racing. But only Ford has the money and power to try and beat a living legend. Pulitzer and Tony-winning writer/actor Tracy Letts nails this role, balancing the fear of aging, the power of money, and the ability to listen when people have a good idea that can change things.
These are the three main characters in Ford v Ferrari, each facing their obsolescence in the only way they knew how — with cars. James Mangold’s newest film is a race against time, both as people get older and as a timeline shrinks. These three people team up to build a car that can beat Ferrari. Miles drives, Shelby designs, and Ford funds. Somehow, this becomes captivating. It is a film that shouldn’t work but succeeds in spite of itself.
To make a film about American men in 2019 without making any sort of overt political statement is difficult, but Mangold and the writers (including playwright Jez Butterworth) have found a fight that everyone encounters the same way. Three men who are aging need to do what they love any way they can. That’s all they can live for. Sometimes this works against the movie, especially when one considers how paper-thin the backstory and history of Carroll Shelby is in the film, or how Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) is maybe the most inconsistent and logic-defying woman ever. The characters are paper-thin, but the conflict is easy to identify with: why do we do what we love?
Ford v Ferrari is best when it is a story of a group of people trying to design and race a car. Much like films such as Apollo 13 or Gravity, it feels less about winning and more about survival. If we change A, how does that affect B? When Ford v Ferrari decides to instead be a sports movie where we are rooting for winners and losers, the film slips. The ultimate villain is the stony Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) as the rival, but it is Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe that fits worst into the film. Everything Beebe does is to hurt the story and the mustache-twirling plotting of Beebe repeatedly slows the film to a halt. Removing his character and machinations from the movie might turn it from an unwieldy 154 minutes into something more enjoyable for a Saturday afternoon on TNT in four years.
Because that is what this is. Like Heat or Braveheart or other movies of that ilk, this is a story about men being men. There are no expectations to overcome, only a fight with the self. Damon and Bale sell this well, but Letts is the true attention-grabber. He doesn’t take up much time of the film, but when he does it is with power. The Ford automobile is one of the most important inventions known to man, and Henry Ford II knows that. But will Henry Ford II only ever live in his father’s shadow? And will he ever see the power of a car as a machine instead of a piggy bank? These conflicts flash across Letts’s face but never linger. Ford may be getting older, but he isn’t getting lazy.
Mangold has crafted Ford v Ferrari into a charming and fun film, though it is overstuffed. Taken at face value, the film is a perfect movie for a random afternoon, not unlike Mangold’s previous films. But here, he makes an argument that had been in his great film Logan a few years ago: do we change when we get older? Does it matter? As Noah Jupe’s character Peter watches his father with astonishment and glee, it’s clear that age doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting across the finish line, whether first or last. Finishing is the goal, and building something great is the cherry on top.
Ford v Ferrari will be released on November 15th