We’ve gotten to the point where I just trust director James Mangold to get it right—whatever the subject matter of one of his films, he’ll find a way to tell the story in a way that is revealing, informative, and insightful. Not every film gets there, but look at recent works like Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and both The Wolverine and Logan—even going back to his earliest works Heavy and Cop Land—for proof. For his latest effort, Mangold returns to the realm of telling a true-life story with Ford v Ferrari, chronicling one of the most important events in American race car design, when the Ford Motor Company went head-to-head with the unbeatable race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans competition in France, circa 1966.
Personally, I couldn’t care less about racing movies, but if you skip this film because you think it’s a racing movie, you’d be denying yourself a rare treat. Matt Damon plays former racer turned legendary car designer Carroll Shelby, whom Ford hired to build a car that could not only be competitive at Le Mans but actually win. Then Ford Motor Co. head Henry Ford II (a wonderfully entitled, pompous Tracy Letts) and his underling Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) both trusted Shelby implicitly but also repeatedly poisoned the process testing various prototypes by allowing Ford’s right-hand man Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, who you will want to punch several times over by the end of the film) to interfere with talk of the “Ford way” of doing things.
One of the ways Beebe interferes is by questioning Shelby’s choice to actually drive the car at Le Mans, British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who was not only not American, but a bit rough around the edges, especially with authority figures, so much so that he had trouble finding steady racing work, even though he consistently won. But Miles was also a master at testing each new race car to make it perfect, and eventually he made his way to Le Mans. Miles is by far the most interesting character in the film, if for no other reason than we see him outside of the racing environment. His extraordinary wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) understands what makes him tick like few others, and his young son Peter (Noah Jupe, who will be seen next week as the lead in Honey Boy) worships his dad and the cars he designs and drives.
Although Ford v Ferrari is not exclusively a racing film, the sequences that involve racing are exceptionally crafted using camera work (and I’m assuming special effects) to create something so immersive and dangerous that you find yourself practically flinching and sweating right along with the drivers. The perspective we get as other drivers wreck is terrifying, and the way they get a kind of loopy tunnel vision—especially when night driving—is death defying. Mangold and his team make this type of street racing seem as dangerous as I’m sure it is, and as much as you want Miles to make it out of Le Mans alive, there’s an exhilaration that makes you wish it would never end.
Every race features drama on and off the track, usually involving Shelby battling with last-minute adjustments that the Ford team wants to introduce during the race. The ultimate insult comes during Le Mans when Miles is asked to slow his lead to let the two other Ford drivers catch up so they can potentially cross the finish line together. This may be one of the few films you’ll ever see that practically advocates for towing the line as a company man when the moment seems right (or you don’t want to lose your job).
There’s an air of desperation to so much of Ford v Ferrari. Sometimes it comes from Henry Ford II, who feels like he’s being judged by those around him for not being the success his father was. Sometimes it comes from Beebe, who doesn’t know nearly as much as Shelby about car design, but still has the need to feel powerful over people far more knowledgeable than himself. But often the desperation comes from Shelby and Miles, who know they can do the job if only they’d be left to their own devices. It’s the age-old story of visionaries being stifled by the small-minded weasels who just happen to run the show. And a great deal of the movie becomes these two impressive men finding creative ways to not only design cars but avoid the brass. Like the cars they built, the film is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s another feather in Mangold’s cap as a superior storyteller.
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