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Man and Machine
This historical drama of the individual and bureaucracy is as good as Hollywood gets. Using well its 2-1/2 hours, “Ford v Ferrari” presents not one, but multiple heart-stopping races that even those who think they don’t like car racing, and couldn’t tell an rpm from an rgb, will find thrilling.
Christian Bales is electric as this incorrigible hothead.
At the heart of the film—set in the midst of America’s (and Italy’s) 1960s love affair with the car—is arrogant and abrasive 45 year-old Ken Miles, a fearless British driver who can’t please enough customers in his auto shop to prevent the IRS from seizing it. Christian Bale is electric as this incorrigible hothead, yet believable as a good husband and father. Miles’s devoted wife (Caitriona Balfe), the one woman in the film (and hers is a minor role), and awe-struck son Peter (Noah Jupe, “Honey Boy” ) temper his cockiness. As does fellow-driver Carroll Shelby, also no wallflower, a secondary—yet important—role for Matt Damon.
“Ford v Ferrari,” directed by James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma” , “Logan” ) opens on a white-knuckle sequence, with Shelby driving and winning the demanding 1959 “24 Hours of Le Mans” endurance race, the first American to do so. He’s then side-lined with a heart problem and moves on to selling high-end cars, until he is convinced by Lee Iacocca (an overly subservient Jon Bernthal), later of Chrysler fame, to help build a racing car for Ford.
“Tell him he’s not Henry Ford, he’s Henry Ford II.”
Ford attempts to get into the European racing business—a marketing tactic espoused by Iacocca and scoffed at by the other “suits” at Ford—first by trying to buy a close-to-bankrupt Ferrari. “The old man,” Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), plays them, selling out to Fiat under their noses and deriding the grandson Ford now in charge: “Tell him he’s not Henry Ford, he’s Henry Ford II.” Those are fighting words, it seems, and the insult pushes “Deuce” (Tracy Letts), as he is sometimes called, to take up the racing challenge. He’s not going to let “that greasy wop” beat him.
Forget women and minorities. It’s all about the white men.
As that back-and-forth demonstrates, much of “Ford v Ferrari” is about male egos—their fragility, their need to be bolstered, their constant strutting. Forget women and minorities. It’s all about the white men. So much so that Shelby and Miles, great friends, inevitably engage in the ritual wrestling match—a cinematic cliché—on a Los Angeles parkway, while Miles’s wife takes out a chair and newspaper and looks on, bemused, confirming it’s just men at play, deepening their bond.
Shelby speaks truth to power, telling Ford II, “you can’t win a race by committee.”
Shelby, who knows only Miles can drive a car that can beat the Ferraris, is the liaison between the talented, irascible, one-of-a-kind Miles, many of whose values he shares, and the timid Ford bureaucrats, personified by Ford’s second-in-command, a toadying and manipulative Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), concerned only with protecting the company’s image. It’s not the easiest position for Shelby, and his willingness to cater to Ford II at times seems out of character. At a launch of the Mustang (a vehicle ridiculed by Miles), Shelby waxes eloquent on the virtues of obsession, a quality, he announces, shared by him and one other person in attendance—not Miles, but the stolid, equivocating Ford II. At other times Shelby speaks truth to power, telling Ford II, “you can’t win a race by committee.”
It’s also a discourse on the individual and the machine, intuition and science, humanity and technology.
“Ford v Ferrari” is not solely about the individual and bureaucracy. It’s also a discourse on the individual and the machine, intuition and science, humanity and technology. Computers were just coming into use, and the engineers at Ford want to modify the aerodynamics of what would become the fabled Ford GT40 Mk I high-performance racing car, using computer data. Instead, Miles, Shelby and their team (including folksy but clever Phil [Ray McKinnon]) tape pieces of yarn on the car to determine the wind flow—a triumph of pragmatic, people-based problem-solving.
For viewers not savvy about racing, all one needs to know to enjoy the many races in the film is made clear when Miles effectively describes the Le Mans racetrack, and the quest for “the perfect lap,” to his enthralled son. The quality of the race scenes alone earned “Ford v Ferrari” multiple editing and sound Academy Award nominations and two Oscars.
A repeatedly riveting experience with well-developed principal characters.
The film has its too-obvious lines and some over-the-top scenes (among them Miles’s wife terrorizing her husband in the family station wagon). But it rises above its flaws to be a repeatedly riveting experience with well-developed principal characters. Even the ending—and there are multiple potential ones—isn’t what one expects. Although we didn’t think so at the time—we hadn’t seen it yet, and we were put off by what we imagined to be an indulgent focus on masculinity—“Ford v Ferrari” earned its nomination for a 2019 Oscar for Best Picture.
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Jon Bernthal, Remo Girone, Josh Lucas, Ray McKinnon
Selected crew: Head Painter, Phillipe Meynard
Oscar Wins: Best Achievement in Film Editing; Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Runtime: 152 minutes