Ford v Ferrari

Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller
Stars: Matt Damon (Carroll Shelby), Christian Bale (Ken Miles), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), Caitriona Balfe (Mollie Miles), Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe), Noah Jupe (Peter Miles), Tracy Letts (Henry Ford II), Remo Girone (Enzo Ferrari), Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington), JJ Feild (Roy Lunn), Jack McMullen (Charlie Agapiou)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S.
Ford v. Ferrari
Ford v. Ferrari

The title of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is somewhat misleading in that the majority of the film has little to do with the rivalry between the titular American and Italian car manufacturers. That particular conflict is more of an inciting incident, the thing that kicks the plot into gear, rather than what sustains it. The film really should have been titled Ford v Ford, because most of the dramatic conflict is between men who are ostensibly on the same team, insofar as “team” is defined by the car manufacturer for which they work—the brand to which they ultimately must answer. Outside of that, though, they have little in common and much that divides them, specifically the color of their collars. Ford v Ferrari is, at heart, a highly entertaining battle between the office executives for whom image and marketing is everything and the grease-under-their-fingernails designers, engineers, and drivers for whom the thrill of the drive is everything. You don’t have to know much about the underlying American myth of the working-class hero to imagine which side the film falls on.

Matt Damon stars as Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver who was one of the rare Americans to race in the fabled 24-hour Le Mans in the late 1950s. Medical issues derail his racing career, and instead he turns to auto design, starting his own company that builds custom sports cars. His chief test driver is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a rough-around-the-edges Englishman who never hesitates to speak his mind, especially to the powers that be (one of the film’s funniest scenes finds him informing an increasingly insulted one-percenter that he has absolutely no idea how to drive his high-end sports car). Carroll is tapped by the Ford Motor Company when one of its chief executives, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), convinces the company president, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), that the way to remain competitive in an increasingly global market is to challenge the dominance of Ferrari on the national racing stage. While Ferrari, headed by the meticulous and uncompromising Enzo Ferrarai (Remo Girone), strives for perfection, Ford focuses on volume, something that Iacocca argues must change, much to the chagrin of Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Ford’s despicably condescending head of marketing.

And thus is born the central conflict, as Carrol and Ken, along with a team of designers and builders led by chief engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon), strive to build a car that can not just compete, but win against Ferrari, while Beebe and his team of starched-collared executives undermine them at every turn with their own agenda. Beebe in particular has an axe to grind with Ken, who he loathes and loathes to see involved in any of Ford’s victories; as a result, he tries to sideline him whenever possible, even though Carroll insists (and we know) that he is the best driver on the track and the best bet Ford has to come out on top. It is Beebe’s willingness to sacrifice the hard work and integrity of the engineering team to settle his own petty grievances that make him truly despicable, not just his unctuous airs (Lucas has excelled over the years playing this kind of smarmy character, and lest we forget that one of his early roles was as a conceited executive opposite Christian Bale’s yuppie serial killer in 2000’s American Psycho).

While that conflict is paramount to the film’s narrative machinery, equally important is the chemistry between Damon and Bale as seasoned veterans of the racing world who know and respect each other, which is at the heart of the film’s celebration of hard work, dedication, and professionalism. Director James Mangold, whose most recent films include the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005), the modern celebrity-minded Western 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and the funereal comic book movie Logan (2017), knows a thing or two about building and sustaining conflict among principled men, and he keeps the film moving along smoothly; it’s a well-oiled machine in all the best ways. The screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Spectre), John-Henry Butterworth (Get On Up), and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) makes it clear that the real American grit, muscle, and integrity is at work underneath the hood of the car, not manufacturing the pseudo-event to celebrate its debut. Ford v Ferrari is a film that is profoundly critical of the business world’s executive branch and the way it uses and abuses the workers who actually make the world run. The scene in which Carrol takes Henry Ford II on a speed-demon test drive of the new race car is like a parsing of real men: while Carroll remains utterly cool and in control, Ford, the white-collar alpha male who likes to make grand pronouncements about “going to war,” is reduced to babbling, blubbering tears. The fact that Carroll pulls this stunt as a way of ensuring that Ken is kept in the driver’s seat is testament to their mutual dedication to both each other and the project. While quite a bit is made about Ken’s relationship with his impressively patient wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his wide-eyed adolescent son Peter (Noah Jupe), Ford v Ferrari is fundamentally, at heart, a genuinely moving bromance.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3.5)



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