‘Ford v Ferrari’: A Frisky Gearhead Fetish Film
Once upon a time, a little upstart called the Ford Motor Company took on the monolithic Italian carmaker Ferrari and, against all odds, pulled off a David-and-Goliath upset in 1966 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. And no one ever heard from Ferrari again. Wait, what?
FORD v FERRARI ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Berthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas
Running time: 152 min
A more revealing title for Ford v Ferrari would be Throw Money at the Problem. Or better yet: Suck My Balls, Enzo! James Mangold’s frisky gearhead fetish film is a celebration of America’s intractable adrenaline-rush lust for spiteful short-term wins over boring long-term excellence. It’s a flashy, vroom-vroom wild ride with seriously muddled politics. Enzo Ferrari has a point: a smaller-scale business focused on excellence will make inarguably better products than an industrial mass-production behemoth. And yet he’s the villain?
Ahhh, but the optics. Ford will sell more product if people think the cars are actually well-made. And that’s hard if Ferrari is out there showing everyone what a high-quality vehicle can actually do. Especially when he keeps winning at Le Mans, the most grueling race in the world. “We need to think like Ferrari,” says Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal). But that’s too hard, so Ford pulls out its checkbook and tries to buy Ferrari. Except Enzo (Remo Girone) says vaffanculo! to Ford and its “ugly factory.” Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) doesn’t take kindly to the frank rejection of his gauche offer, so he vows to bury “that greasy wop” at Le Mans. Stay classy, Henry.
Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who actually won Le Mans in 1959 but ended his racing career because of a heart condition. Now he just goes around in a cowboy hat and dark glasses, making bank as a custom-auto manufacturer and car whisperer to people like Ford. He tells his fellow Americans that, in order to beat the suave Italians, they need a hotheaded British expat named Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
The chameleonic Oscar-winning Welsh actor delivers what might be called the Full Bale: not a fattened-up Dick Cheney, or a twitchy Southie-accented Bostoner, or a gravelly-voiced Batman, or a suave sociopath Patrick Bateman. There’s no flat American accent to be heard anywhere, and no costume flourishes to conceal. Rarely-seen but deeply satisfying, the Full Bale is a wiry, sinewy, short-fused rageaholic with a thick-as-figgy-pudding working-class accent and an irresistible twinkle in his eye. “More of that, please! More of that, my girl!” Miles purrs as he guns his souped-up GT40 around the track. “Giddy up! Giddy up!” The Full Bale is essential for moments like these, when you need someone to say “cor blimey” with absolute, unironic conviction. God bless the Full Bale.
Ford v Ferrari is essentially a bromance where Shelby and Miles are either throwing punches at each other or laughing in tandem at their corporate overlords. This is a moonshot movie, where the main characters have an impossible task but face it with steely determination. “While we’re here talking, he’s out there getting it done!” Shelby barks, defending his rogue friend from the conformist powers that be. Is their conflict against The Man a bit too on the nose? Absolutely. And it fits into the American myth of yee-haw rogue buccaneers who push the envelope and make the impossible a reality.
That challenge is a delight to watch, especially when Mangold recreates the racing scenes with teeth-rattling verisimilitude. Despite all the fun, though, don’t expect surprises. This is the type of movie that exclaims, “You can’t win a race by committee!” Except that’s literally the definition of how Hollywood studios make movies. One could argue that Ford v Ferrari is a sly self-critique of corporate groupthink, but a film with a $100 million budget is hardly going to bite the hand that feeds. Think of it more as a soft gnaw.
It’s also, by the way, uncomfortably comfortable with its own retrogressive look at a Caucasian patriarchy. Ford v Ferrari is a nostalgia trip back to a time when white men ruled the world, women offered sassy but unshakable support, and the U.S.A. was in thrall to the bright shining lie that it was the greatest, smartest, cleverest, most talented country on God’s green earth. Gentlemen, start your engines.