The serious racing film subgenre is overlooked to an almost criminal degree, and I’m not even a car person. Really serious though, not the pantomime of Fast & Furious franchise, nor corniness of Days of Thunder, but the story of stern men whose life revolves around engine and diesel. Neither family nor foe can stop them achieve the goal of perfect symbiose between them and the vehicle. The kind of film where the closest thing to a love scene is the moment our hero gentle presses the pedal just to hear the almost growling eroticism of that vroom – fumes between us the camera and our hero, like low-key lighting from a fireplace. Yeah, there aren’t many of them, and I don’t really understand why.
Ford v Ferrari, the new film from James Mangold, fills the void left by Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush, an incredibly entertaining film on it’s own. But where Howard obsessed in the rivalry between two drivers, Mangold goes back to the basis and looks in to the pursuit of perfection – there is no time for relationships or ego trips, the two men in front of centre in Ford v Ferrari strive for the same goal, and it’s only petty things like other people that stand in the way of excellence. Ford v Ferrari is the kind of film that Steve McQueen fans will quietly cherish.
The Australian (and original) title tells us part of the plot, but in the UK the film is called Le Mans ‘66, which refocus the film in the objective of the protagonists. Struck by poor sales and even worse reputation, Ford motors decides to take on the historic annual French race 24 hours of Le Mans and compete directly with Ferrari, at the time the indisputable kings of racing cars. The plan starts by hiring the last American to win said race, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), to get a team that can build, and race, the fastest car in the world. Only one man seems fit to be at the wheel, the intrepid Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a driver so good as he is impossible to work with.
The two men are driven (eheh) by a love for the car. They discuss engines, pistons, valves a lot of other impressive technical jargons, and then drive the cars like they are extensions of themselves. It’s almost like winning the race is just a passing thought, and their real goal is to write their names in the history of racing.
What stops them, unfortunately, is corporate America. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), a man so deep in his grandfather’s shadow he can barely see the sunlight, wants to expand his brand worldwide and stick it to Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) for refusing to sell his business. Constantly surrounded by a posse of marketers, lawyers, business analysts and other sycophants (including Josh Lucas and Jon Bernthal), Ford’s approach is purely financial, lacking the passion that both Shelby and Miles have. In one of the main dramatic problems, Miles is asked to step down for not being “Ford-material” and it’s hard not to see a thinly veiled critique of the current Hollywood business paradigm against auteurship, especially from Mangold, a director that found a way to have his voice in a couple of successful superhero films that still stand as unique outliers.
The script, penned by Jez & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, is sometimes at odds with Mangold’s direction. On the page it feels that it admires the big soulless corporation as the force that shapes our society for the good. It has moments so bootlickingly nauseuos I I wanted Ferrari to win just out of principle. The introduction of Henry Ford II stands out as the worst example of this, especially because nothing in the film seems to condemn it or stand against it. On the other hand there’s Mangold who shoots the Ford boys as almost grotesque caricatures of rampant capitalism. In a particular emotional moment, the kind that Mangold is good at exploiting, he gives an exchange of looks of respect between Miles and Ferrari. In that moment we wished we understand the heart is worth more than the bucks.
No actor stands out here. Both Damon and Bale embody their characters with the confidence that only someone with their pedigree could. Letts is decadent as Ford, and I say this as a compliment, but my MVPs are Bernthal and Lucas – the first for doing a great job at a new role thus proving that he’s the most unexpectedly versatile actor in Hollywood right now, and the second for nailing the right tone of the villain without making it too obvious.
Ford v Ferrari is a good film that ironically could’ve been better if Mangold was left to work on his own. It takes itself so serious, its approach is almost engineered with the meticulousness of a master that just doesn’t want to fail. The race scenes are tremendous and exciting, but it’s when it stops that it struggles to, not unlike Miles, connect in an emotional level past the machine.
The subgenre has here a good breath of fresh air, but it’s yet to give us its own Raging Bull. Heck, it’s yet to give us its own Rocky.
Those races, shot and cut like a battle scene, it would’ve made David Lean proud. Mangold always delivers the goods. So does Damon, Bale, Letts, Bernthal and Lucas. Seriously, there isn’t much here that surprises us.
A little tonal conflict with the script, a little too dry. Everytime there isn’t a car in the frame, the film struggles to feel something. A whole subplot with Miles’ family tries to make up for that loss, but the head of the filmmakers just wasn’t there.
But who’s watching this for a father-son story? This is the kind of race film where the brakes sparks fire and it’s still exciting even after someone explains the mechanics of why that happened. Be ready to be excited about a brake rotor swap.