To start at the end, it is the final irony that James Mangold’s new film is titled “Ford V Ferrari” and not “Shelby and Miles V Ford.” This is a movie—a wonderful movie—which is so much less about Ford going up against Ferrari for a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans than it is about Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles pushing every single step of the way for Ford executives to do the right thing. This is not a movie about one company taking on another, it is about two people taking on a company and doing so in order to help that company achieve its goal. Of course, in a world ruled by corporations, a world where corporations are people, a movie getting released by 20th Century Fox, a subsidiary of Disney, titled to highlight the genius of American companies over foreign ones is rather awful, but makes sense.
No one at the Ford Motor Company comes off looking like the good guy in this movie. Not Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), or even Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal). On the other side of the title, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is barely a character at all. Each of these men is out for their own self-interest. They are people who are so wrapped up in being important, in being a part of this mammoth corporation (or in the case of Ferrari, keeping his company number one in the world of racing), in living up to the dreams of Ford’s founder that they simply cannot get out of their own way.
Ford’s goal in the film is simple – to win a grueling car competition. It is something that they know that they cannot do in-house, and so they farm the job out to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who, in turn, hires driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to help the team build and drive the new car. Yet, the egos of the Ford team are so big that despite knowing that they need help building the car, that they can’t do it, they insist on micro-managing the affair, undercutting Shelby and Miles at every opportunity.
“Ford V Ferrari” is quite explicit about it – if Ford is able to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is only because Shelby and Miles insist on doing things their way, and “their way” stands in direct opposition to Ford. To be clear, there is no suggestion that Ford makes bad cars, just that they have no idea how to make racing cars and they know it.
Although the feature clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours, it all goes by far more quickly. Damon and Bale absolutely rule the screen. The best scenes in the film are the ones with just the two of them, with each actor doing their best to own the frame. Each plays a larger than life character and does so with all the charisma that they can offer. It is thrilling to watch them work, separately and together, and to see their car edge towards the race.
All of this is not to say that “Ford V Ferrari” is perfect in every way but the title. Director James Mangold and writers Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller include in the film moments of Miles’ life with his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and son, Peter (Noah Jupe). And while the relationship between the son and father work, the one between the wife and husband is far more weak. There is an emotional bond that the movie is able to create in showing these personal relationships, but Mollie always feels tertiary in importance.
Balfe winds up playing a very “traditional” sort of wife role and it’s not enough. It’s not enough in comparison to what Miles is going through on the professional end, and it’s not just in terms of the dynamic between husband and wife. Jupe’s Peter gets a far more important role as he is the doting son who is learning about racing and admires his father and wants to be a part of this world. Far more than Mollie, Peter is our way in to Ken Miles’ personal life. It isn’t that Balfe doesn’t succeed with what she’s given either; in fact, she does so well with what she has that it seems crime that she doesn’t have more to do.
When it comes to the racing sequences, and there are several, the movie doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand offering explanation after explanation, but nor do moments go over one’s head. Mangold and company find the exact right middle ground where the uninitiated viewer can understand what is taking place and why without the movie slowing down to make it explicit. These moments are exciting, tense, and just plain thrilling.
Beyond that, there is a sense of style, of panache, offered by “Ford V Ferrari.” It is a film which revels in the time period it is depicting. It offers up a true love of motorsport. It places a premium on that so American of ideals, the importance of the individual. And, it’s anchored by great performances (not just Bale and Damon, but the whole Ford team).
It is a great film, it is just ironic that it is titled in a way to completely undercut its whole identity.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox