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‘Ford V Ferrari’ is a thrilling racing drama that chases perfection

 By Dan Cava

November 16, 2019

Ford v Ferrari is a red-blooded American movie, a crowd-pleasing underdog drama, and a paean to visionary men striving against the compromise of the collective. It’s one of the best movies of the year. 

In the 1960s, after years of success, the Ford Motor Company, under the leadership of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), faces declining sales and the realization that it operates more as a symbol of bland efficiency than as a beacon of American drive and innovation. To recapture the world’s attention, executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernenthal) convinces Ford II to bankroll an attempt to create a Ford car that can compete in the grueling 24-hour Le Mans race, a race dominated year after year by the Italian car company Ferrari. With the race less than 100 days away, Iacocca recruits retired driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American to have ever triumphed at Le Mans, to help build both a winning team and car. Against the wishes of Ford’s head of racing Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Shelby brings on the talented but temperamental Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his design partner and preferred driver. 

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Director James Mangold’s (Logan, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) movie is very much like the car Shelby and Miles strive to build: fast, dependable, built for endurance (FvF clocks in at over two and a half hours), and resolutely American. Audiences may not be familiar with the history, but we are deeply acquainted with these kinds of stories. Both as history and as a movie drama, we know that much of what we’re watching is a foregone conclusion. But, as film critic Roger Ebert said, “It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it” that matters. As moviegoers, we’ve seen most of what Ford v Ferrari has to offer, and it’s wonderful.

The movie burrows deeply into an array of American man mythologies of man makes machine, man drives fast car, man versus corporation. Shelby and Miles face a ton of good old-fashioned American movie adversity: they struggle against the clock, against the micromanagement of talentless executives, against the homogenizing powers of a large company and, among other things, they struggle to find balance with their roles as husbands and fathers.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The dramas are as old as America itself, and Mangold’s open embrace of the classic recipes is striking, even refreshing. I have no idea how this movie will play in Italy but I do know that for me, a first generation American son of an Italian immigrant, I know exactly whose side I’m on. It’s the one covered with grit and sweat and nonconformity.

Notably, Ford v Ferrari is the second American movie this year (together with Tarantino’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood) to knowingly celebrate the richness of platonic male partnerships. This, too, is a profound man myth, that in impossible circumstances, you don’t need a friend, you need a capital “C” co-worker, that the intimacy built in the trenches is to be cherished alongside the separate intimacies of romance and family. Again, such a dynamic is nothing new, but FvF’s screenplay nuances the camaraderie by shrewdly hinting at the cost of the men’s mutual obsessions. We watch them struggle, we yearn for their glory, but we can’t help but worry about what’s left for them on the other side of the finish line.

Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The pairing of Matt Damon and Christian Bale is, like the characters they play, an inspired study of mutually enhancing opposites. As British-born race driver Ken Miles, Christian Bale gives one of those performances that might seem over-the-top until you compare it to footage of the person he’s playing. In his hands Miles bristles with the intensity of a caged tiger. Matt Damon puts on an easy-going southern drawl as Carrol Shelby, whose salesman charm hints at an iron will and a talent for timing as a means of influencing the people who have something he needs. Bale is the gas pedal and Damon is the steering wheel. 

The brakes, as it were, are the Ford Motor Company corporate executives played smartly by FvF’s supporting cast. Tracy Letts’ Henry Ford II would be the very picture of corporate complacency in the hands of a lesser actor, but Letts gives Ford a glint of sleeping-giant aggression and, in one delightful scene, an eruption of boyishness. In a neat piece of anti-casting, Josh Lucas’ turns his all-American appeal inside out as Leo Beebe, a slippery Ford executive whose skill seems to be climbing the ladders others have built. Jon Bernenthal’s northeastern edge is a nice catalyst for young Lee Iacocca at this stage in his career: equal parts ambition and haste. 

Christian Bale as Ken Miles and Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

In a movie set in the male-dominated world of 1960s racing, the lone female co-starring role of Ken’s wife Mollie Miles goes to Caitriona Balfe. Balfe makes the most of her limited but crucial screen time, going toe-to-toe with Christian Bale with much of the same self-possession and strength she displays in her starring role as Claire in the TV series Outlander. The screenplay rides a careful line with the character of Mollie, in that she is sidelined by the main story, but that very sidelining is viewed as mutual but somewhat melancholy sacrifice at the service of Ken’s potential moment in history. In a movie that could be shot through with triumphalism, Ford v Ferrari doesn’t assume an answer to whether or not Miles and Shelby’s efforts are worth it.

Director James Mangold is telling a clear and uncomplicated story, and he wisely employees an array of disarmingly straightforward filmmaking tactics. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is unaffected and naturally colorful, relying more on subtle changes in focus than on elaborate movement. Mangold keeps the camera trained on the faces of the men at work. The numerous racing scenes are exhilarating, not because Mangold reinvents the wheel here, but because he shoots the action with spatial clarity and expert timing. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ musical score is buoyant with 1960’s lounge sounds reminiscent of the happier moments of TV’s Mad Men. At 152 minutes, Ford V Ferrari still feels edited to the bone. The movie zooms by.

Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Both James Mangold and Quentin Tarantino are American male middle-aged directors whose most recent work seems to contemplate their American-ness, their maleness, and their place as visionaries within shifting expectations. In Ford v Ferrari, Mangold has created a thrilling throwback drama that pursues perfection. It both celebrates and reconsiders the classic masculine hero, reminding us that for better or worse, the men who pushed us into the future were the ones who pushed as hard as they could. 

Star Rating: 5 out of 5  

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