“Ford v Ferrari”
Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts and Remo Girone
Whether I want to admit it or not, motorsports has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. There’s something intrinsic and freeing about racecars going 190 MPH+ around a track while jockeying for position that I do find exhilarating.
James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” captures the essence of that exhilaration with panache and grace.
But, I’m still not a car guy.
Set in the 1960’s, Ford Motor Company is looking to change its image and the fundamental underpinning of “Ford v Ferrari”’ is to preserve the dominant corporate America image, no more, no less.
Mangold demonstrates a threatening elegance as the opening credits roll over Phedon Papamichael’s cameras tracking Henry Ford II through a Dearborn manufacturing plant, the static parts and people building cars for the masses. There is an urgency within the movement and when the credits come to a stop, Ford (Tracy Letts) orders a stop of the production line, essentially telling his people to go home and think about how they can evolve the brand, along with a veiled threat: “the first person to come up with an idea gets to keep his job. If you don’t, don’t bother coming back to work.”
Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller’s script swiftly moves us into a solution; a young Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) offers an alternative solution: to prove Ford’s supremacy through a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. To achieve this, they target the cash-strapped Scuderia Ferrari. Bernthal’s struggle to convince both sides that the idea is worthy of attention is admirable; his calm demeanor plays to the patience with which this film is paced.
Mangold treats the encounter between Iacocca and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) with a subtle sense of humor while setting the tone for the incoming battle for automotive racing supremacy. Papamichael’s slow and steady camera work matches the speed with which Ferrari is reviewing the contract; low lighting punctuates the sumptuously appointed office, along with the acrid cigarette smoke from the patiently waiting Ford team.
This deft attention to detail also pays homage to the handcrafted nature by which Ferrari manufactures cars, a stark contrast to the mass production line seen at the beginning of the film. The scene subtly suggests that something else is afoot as their negotiations go on into the late night, a translator passing the carefully spoken words with little to no emotion, with an ultimate rebuke from Ferrari when Fiat offers him a more lucrative deal.
Undeterred, Ford presses Leo Beebee (Josh Lucas) into service to find the right guy to build a car that can beat Ferrari at the next Le Mans. That guy happens to be a happy-go-lucky free-spirited Carroll Shelby. Damon’s wunderkind nature plays to Shelby’s strengths as a character, something that Mangold went to great lengths to get right; Damon’s a powerhouse on the screen, but he’s also a big pussy cat; the kind you want to cuddle up with on a Sunday aftern . . . . oops, sorry – this IS a review of “Ford v Ferrari.”
The point still stands. Damon is as smooth as his accent would have you believe. Like a finely tuned engine, Damon shifts from first to second to third when called for. As a counterpoint to Shelby’s hidden temperament, Ken Miles wears his temper on his sleeve.
Bale is perfectly cast as Miles, a former WWII vet with petrol in his veins. Where Miles balances Shelby Caitriona Balfe’s Mollie, his wife, balances Miles.
Miles is a pivotal character; there is more detail than was needed. We understand that he is on the rocks, that he is a family man first, or that Mollie would like to think that he is. Some of the best scenes involving Ken aren’t when he’s behind the wheel of a car, but when he’s spending time with his son, Peter (Noah Jupe). The criticism here is contradictory in that the background serves a higher purpose; it’s just overboard in the context of the story.
Carrying the competitive spirit with which “Ford v Ferrari” moves, Mangold shifts back to the matter at hand: a loss at Le Mans with the first car that Shelby and Miles developed results in a visit to Ford’s Dearborn office, one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Shelby, who is made to wait in Ford’s outer office, sits very still. He knows what’s at stake; Damon and Mangold embrace the stakes: the skyline is an occluded grey, as if a storm is brewing; the huge office matching Ford’s ambitions with a divider in the middle of the room separating his desk and a sunken seating area from a conference room to denote the separation in power.
Letts is center screen, the fury being contained as Shelby comes into the room. The motionless Ford asks, “Give me one reason why I don’t fire everyone starting with you?” Damon and Mangonld play Shelby’s reaction, which understood the ambition and the hunger, to the nines, explaining why the loss at Le Mans wasn’t completely a loss, reminding Ford that Ferrari is now aware of Ford’s might; that they need to press on.
Ford’s charge, “Go ahead, Shelby. Go to war.” God, I love Tracy Letts!
As “Ford v Ferrari” shifts into its second act, the character building subsides, we see two very intent men doing what they do best. Mangold’s direction is flawless even if the characters sit on cruise control toward an inevitable conclusion.
Though we don’t actually know what happened to Ken Miles, the story postulates an idea, which unfortunately grinds the flow of the film to a halt. The racing is electrifying and when we see Bale behind the wheel of the car, it’s as if we’re hurtling ahead with him, the thrill and the exhilaration of driving at such a high rate of speed; the freedom it brings.
Beebee would go on to become a fierce prick, the type that protects the c-suite and does it with such ferocity that you want to hate him. Lucas plays this to the hilt, demanding that all three Ford cars cross the finish line, something that is historically accurate to the event.
Mangold injects “fun” into just about every aspect of “Ford v Ferrari.” Reminds me of the time Shelby takes Hank the Deuce on a ride along a runway. There is excitement and elation in Ford as Shelby proves a point. You’ll have to see the movie to get the set up, but this scene and Lett’s reaction alone are worth the price of admission, I assure you.
From the time Hank the Deuce told Shelby to go to war with Ferrari, the characters slowly fall into the background, the race taking the pole position in the story. The fun continues, but below the line, Mangold doesn’t quite know how to handle the downshift from the effortless shifting between the Ford/Ferrari feud and the ongoing internal feud with Shelby defending his practices and handling of Miles to Beebee.
“Ford v Ferrari” is Shelby’s show and Damon doesn’t let us forget it; he’s a generous actor, Mangold is a solid director that Bale manages to shine. They each get their moments, but the overdone character development and the independence with which Shelby and Miles represent their part of this story doesn’t truly fit into the “Ford v Ferrari” corporate airflow.
And, that’s vexing.
PG-13, 152 minutes, A 20th Century Fox/Chernin Entertainment Release