James Mangold’s Ford V Ferrari is an old-school odyssey, sensationalized by burnt rubber, colliding pigheads, and grease stains. Based on a true story, it contrasts the openness of the road with the restrictiveness of the destination, and while a great deal of its hostility rightfully rests in the laps of assembly line ringleaders, much of the film feels similarly contrived by rehashed nuts and bolts.
However, this strange contradiction makes sense in conversation with its arena. Ford V Ferrari seeks pure cinematic gold when it comes to being voluptuously entertaining, a benchmark it surpasses on several occasions. This is partly because the film is spearheaded by two cases of pleasantly zesty acting – courtesy of the remarkably untapped chemistry between Matt Damon and Christian Bale – as well as an entire ensemble of fine supporting performers. But it’s mostly because the rhythmic velocity of the action is so crisply composed that its most energetic moments seamlessly diffuse upon the audience.
Now, the title which presumably drives the conflict – the contention between the looming factories of Detroit and the meticulous, intimate workshops of Italy – is a bit of a red herring. In actuality, the struggle here is between the clean-polished suits at the top of the Ford Motor Company and the grease monkeys on the asphalt who inhale competition and exhale exhaust fumes. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, the exploits of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, the car designer and driver played by Damon and Bale, are used to flagrantly liken the manufacturing business to the movie business. It’s not too challenging a task to place Carroll and Ken in the shoes of ambitious filmmakers fighting against studio heads for creative control.
What’s interesting is that this tension is based off a desperate vocation. After experiencing persistent embarrassment at the hands of Ferrari vehicles, often effortlessly at that, Henry Ford II (boomingly played by Tracy Letts) becomes hellbent on not only entering the racing scene, but dominating it. Prepared to issue a blank check, he doesn’t care who or what is behind the wheel of that car – at least, that’s what he says – as long as it has the Ford name plastered on front and it’s the first to cross the finish line at the centerfold of high-speed events, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
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With his team, Carroll, the only American to ever win the daylong race and whose health forced him into early retirement, is brought in to conceive the automobile; while Shelby, who’s described most patiently as “difficult,” is brought in to steer. The two are peas of the same pod, whose ability to navigate a car is based almost entirely around their fused relationship with its working; simply put, their passion for the competition is only matched by their passion for the craft, a characteristic Mangold clearly shares with them.
Together, Damon and Bale bicker, batter, battle and forgive. In doing so, they join the ranks of recent films like Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood and classics such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in comprising a tongue-in-cheek friendship that, for so many reasons, shouldn’t work but, for one or two vital reasons, does.
Given that Bale plays a loudmouth Cagney – not far from his own well-documented personality – they ironically help the film embody an empirically American motif: The Western. Cast along open ranges and cleared tracks, firing off simple shells of good guys and bad guys, Ford V Ferrari’s humble retainment of entertainment marks the film as an increasingly rare, if one-layered callback to the glorious studio productions of the past. Unfortunately, as the traditionalist suits prepare for their international massacre (“this isn’t the first time Ford has gone to war in Europe”), they increasingly belittle the setting as shallow villainous figures – primarily Josh Lucas’ icky businessman, Leo Beebe – all of whom stomp before thinking. But then again, the point may very well be that Mangold himself has come across one or two higher-ups like that.
But any misgivings bestowed upon Ford V Ferrari by the script are, more or less, eliminated by the film’s big draw: the racing. Gloriously calibrated, simply designed, and modestly edited, audiences are reminded of the dynamite, nearly natural relationship automobiles share with filmmaking; they have, after all, consistently provided the art form with some of its most thrilling sequences, from Winning and Bullitt to The Fast and the Furious and Baby Driver. Cars may not be your thing – they certainly aren’t mine – but for two and a half hours of well-orchestrated, exceptionally-paced action, they will be.
Regressive in both its structure and tone, Ford v Ferrari thrillingly finishes its race to the cinematic past, though it had to pump its brakes a few times to get there.