“Ford v Ferrari” is to James Mangold what “Chef” is to Jon Favreau. Where the latter tells a semi-autobiographical tale of art through the lens of food; Mangold brings the audience into the meat grinder of creation and competition in racing.
The film begins in the early-mid 1960s as the Ford motor company is at a business plateau, and Henry Ford II (the incredible Tracy Letts) charges his employees with a task to resuscitate the company’s image. Enter Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, the only American race car designer and driver at that time to have won the gruelling 24 hour Le Mans race in France.
Shelby is brought on board as chief engineer for Ford’s entry into racing and with Ford’s endorsement to ‘go to war,’ he enlists the help of his friend and ‘pure racer’ Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to attempt something impossible – usurp the racing dynasty of Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) in a very short space of time. At the same time, they also have to take on the suffocating supervision from within Ford itself.
Kanye West recently spoke of the oppressive “slow yes” of bureaucracy, a severe form of passive-aggressive control. It’s a ‘tow the line’ mentality that Shelby and Miles butted against for their entire lives and here, even after they’re deemed the best ones for the job, they must still face the realities of the conformist corporatist culture.
Obstinance mistaken for virtuous stoicism, management glad-handing, and compromised curation all prove to be shackles suffocating creation. The motors may roar, but the egos are deafening in the struggles for clarity of vision and individual attribution. However this is also a moment of opportunity which both men recognised and seized, in the process setting out to do things which passed the edge of what racing had achieved at that time.
Their passion and experience and downright fervour for excellence made them dually destructive to their ordinary lives, and hence the best men for the post. Mangold and the writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller welcomely focus plenty of attention to all these aspects – and the film is better for it.
Bale’s Miles is unfiltered, seemingly past his prime. Physically lean, wiry and bristly in ways conveyed and barely said, Bale’s head is the game and it’s a real treat to hear Bale tinkering with a British character again. Damon’s Carroll Shelby is one of those post-“The Good Shepherd” performances from the actor that soars in its deliberate and understated choices. Shelby is a national treasure and yet behind closed doors, the Ford ‘suits’ look at him like he’s a charity case; Damon’s Shelby is ready for the challenge.
Letts as Ford the second plays the man with a cavernous chip on his shoulder and inferiority complex, but one determined not to let the legacy of his company die on the vine. Girone plays Ferrari, and it’s a treat to see the European class bias to the braggadocious American industrialist. His cars are works of art; Ford are works of commerce. Ray McKinnon plays Phil Remington and is the silent MVP of the film – lines on a face, an arch in a neck, pristine moustache – Shelby needs a conscience – he’s it.
Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas play the contrasting ethos of Ford. Bernthal’s likeable ‘ad man’ Lee Iacocca wants the Ford to be synonymous with victory and for a Francophile, that’s Le Mans and Ferrari. Lucas is a parasite, who perceives total control as a right. Lucas talent, as an actor, is charming and confident exterior but eight cylinders of desperation under the hood.
There are various visual moments here that set the mood thanks to Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Behind the wheel in Le Mans, as the mist settles on the pavement and the world falls away from Shelby’s gaze, we see a rare moment where his composure wavers. Another is a quiet moment between Bale’s Miles and his son Peter (played with sweetness and admiration by Noah Jupe) laying out on some tarmac in the dusk light that begins to marinate with the emerging city and airstrip lighting.
There is a lag in “Ford v Ferrari,” when it’s bridging the racing vision for what’s practically able to have been achieved. There are times when you’re seeing the unadulterated impressions of engines roaring, car bodies whipping around bends – it makes the computer-generated or enhanced blends drag you away from the track and into a video game. And while Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe) provides a sturdy performance, she’s almost such an ideal vision of Miles long-suffering partner, that it’s distracting.
“Ford v Ferrari” is a testament to historical hindsight. Maybe when our race is over, there can be a reclamation. That sounds so nice – and so impossible – that I want to believe.