Sunday, January 05, 2020

"Ford v. Ferrari": review

2019's "Ford v. Ferrari" is directed by James Mangold and stars Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, and Noah Jupe. The movie tells the story of the Ford Motor Company's attempt to build a racecar that could beat Ferrari at the "24 Hours of Le Mans" race—a competition that Ferrari was dominating. To some extent, the story explores the friendship of two drivers—Carroll Shelby (Damon), a former (and rare American) winner of the Le Mans competition; and Ken Miles (Bale), a volatile but talented British racer and mechanic living and working in the States. The story is also partly told through the eyes of Miles's son Peter (Jupe), who respects Shelby and idolizes his father. One of the overriding themes of "Ford v. Ferrari" is the constant tug of war between talented, creative people and the corporate powers that wish to exploit them. Depending on your political alignment, the movie could be seen as a liberal, anti-capitalist screed that vilifies corporations and their dehumanizing ways, or as a conservative manifesto about the triumph of the individual will in the face of blindly oppressive systems. One way or another, the movie weaves a complex moral tapestry that makes us wonder to what extent we really ought to be rooting for Ford. Josh Lucas, as Ford henchman Leo Beebe (pronounce it "Bibi"), personifies everything that is wrong with corporations—how they reach into people's lives and fuck everything up. Henry Ford II, as portrayed by Tracy Letts, has invested his honor and his ego in the development of a car that will restore Ford's prestige after Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) brutally insults all of Ford's executive board.

If you've seen racing movies before (Ron Howard's "Rush" comes to mind), you probably have some idea as to how this story is going to unfold, even if you haven't looked up the history of the 1960s-era Le Mans races on Wikipedia. When we meet Carroll Shelby, he's already retired from racing because of a bum ticker: a heart valve that is this close to failing on him, and for which he must stay on a strict regimen of meds. Ken Miles, for his part, is a World War I vet with the heart of a test pilot, always looking to drive the next road rocket. Shelby gets the tap on the shoulder from Ford to develop and test a new racecar; Shelby, in turn, taps Miles on the shoulder. Ford, meanwhile, can't stop itself from meddling in the development of the new car and the handling of its temperamental driver, so it's all Shelby can do to vouch for Miles and insist that he be the man at the wheel, and not some milquetoast who will only lose the race for Ford when the going gets tough.

"Ford v. Ferrari" works, not because the tale is particularly original (it may be based on a true story, but it follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has seen such movies), but because the characters are well written and excellently acted. Matt Damon plays a true friend to Ken Miles, and Damon's Shelby understands Miles's mindset because he's a former racer himself—and a revered champion at that. Christian Bale, looking as undernourished as he did during "The Fighter," radiates enough skeletal intensity to make the viewer think that it's Batman himself behind the wheel of the Ford GT40. Noah Jupe does a fine job in the role of Ken Miles's smart, plucky son; Peter's love of racing and admiration for his dad shine through. Caitriona Balfe, as Ken's intrepid wife Mollie, channels the wives of test drivers and test pilots everywhere, through all the ages: women who hold the family together while their husbands go and cheat death one more time. A few of the casting choices for this movie struck me as strange bordering on inspired: Josh Lucas, who normally plays aw-shucks good guys thanks to his blue-eyed good looks, makes for an interesting choice to play the movie's main villain, Ford's Senior Executive Vice President Leo Beebe, who never misses an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench in the works instead of letting the talented people prove themselves. Lucas gets points for being so convincingly hateful that I actually began to dislike the actor as I was watching the movie. Another interesting casting choice was tall, muscular Jon Bernthal, lately famous for playing the Punisher on TV—a perpetually blood-spattered war vet bent on getting revenge for the deaths of his family members. Bernthal plays—I shit you not—a young Lee Iacocca in this story. Bernthal looks nothing like the nerdy, cube-headed Iacocca (who himself looks like a refugee from a Pixar film), but he somehow sells the part, proving to be more imaginative and positive than his corporate-drone peers.

I can't help comparing this movie to other racing films like Tom Cruise's "Days of Thunder" and Chris Hemsworth's "Rush," and in my opinion, this movie has the best racing cinematography I've ever seen. The rapidfire editing is superb; the dangerous camera angles, many of which are close to the rushing ground, provide a level of excitement and tension surpassing that found in the other two aforementioned films. All praise and honor to James Mangold, who has helmed some truly excellent films, such as "Cop Land," "Walk the Line," and the amazing "Logan." The writing also keeps the film balanced between wordless racing and dialogue that makes us care for the characters.

Italians probably won't like "Ford v. Ferrari." They certainly won't be happy to see a cultural icon like Enzo Ferrari debased by a scrappy British-American team that isn't above cheating in small ways to psych the Italian team out. Italian viewers will doubtless also take issue with some of the movie's claims as to how the crucial 1966 Le Mans played out. But perhaps politics is inevitable in a film like this: just as Zack Snyder's "300" was adored by Greeks and hated by Iranians, "Ford v. Ferrari" will have its share of lovers and haters.

As someone who went into this film knowing almost nothing of the history of the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari, I found the story both entertaining and educational. It's an awful time to employ a pun, but "Ford v. Ferrari" is a thrilling ride, and while its thoughtful, quiet ending won't exactly leave you cheering, you'll have had a chance to experience, from the inside, just what it is that makes people fall in love with, and find catharsis in, auto racing.


John Mac said...

Nice review. I'd heard a little about this film, so it was good to read some of the back story you provided.

Kevin Kim said...