Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Ford v Ferrari (2019) dir. James Mangold

American history as the birth of the Ford GT40 beating foreign cars <<< Boston culture as Matt Damon in a race car


Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby (L) and Christian Bale as Ken Miles (R)

In an early scene in Ford v Ferrari, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) pulls his first (of a few) Dramatic Bitch moves by shutting down production at one of his factories for his expository speech with a winning opener: “THIS IS WHAT BANKRUPTCY LOOKS LIKE!” (for visuals, it’s denim-clad, grease-cheeked men staring at a descendent of nepotism making Chevrolet-fitted insults). The year is 1963, and America is on the slow march to death, so what could be a better metaphor than Ford Motor Company, the birth of the economically-boosting assembly line and a bustling milestone in American capitalism, on its last legs?

Ford Motor’s vice president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, whose ruggedness in a suit would have made for a memorable Mad Men villain-of-the-season, but who is somehow submitted to a cowish role here) wants to remarket the Ford family image into a sex appeal for the post-WWII generation: sports cars. With reluctant permission from FORD (whose all-letter capitalization will differentiate human FORD from the Ford Motor business and film title, FvF) and execs, Iacocca flies to Italy to meet with founder Enzo Ferrari (whose all-letter italicization will differentiate human Ferrari from the Ferrari business) for a possible merger of the two motor empires. There, he insults the man by revealing that Italian surnames are not meant for the American tongue (my takeaway) and that Ferrari would have to surrender the opportunity to compete at the legendary Le Mans race should Ford decide to participate. Affronted by the deal, Ferrari insults FORD’s health, the manufactured quality of his cars, and his inability to surpass his forefathers’ legacies. In turn, FORD is affronted by one of those three insults and decides to establish an in-house racing team to humiliate Ferrari compete at Le Mans.  ‘Twas the American way.

And imagine if FORD’s bullheaded moves were the central hero in this movie! The company’s bankruptcy troubles are the pipeline for Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale, adorned with a British accent and refurnished a la Dicky from The Fighter. A war veteran-slash-automechanic-cum-race driver, Miles’s talents are unrecognized, as his belligerent cowboy ways on and off the racetracks don’t meld well with people, bar his wife and son. He’s recruited to Ford Motor’s sports racing team through Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon, who gave me a weird déjà vu during the plane scene until I realized that his name sounded familiar), who is a former Le Mans winner, automotive designer, and eventually Miles’s unofficial PR rep specifically for the Ford execs. Altogether, they build what would become the Ford GT40 (GT for Grand Touring, 40 for the number of inches the car is off the ground — something like that), and that would make up the first hour of the movie.

As standard as a sports drama can be (and in all motorsport cinema, this one leans more towards Ron Howard’s Rush than the Fast and the Furious franchise), FvF hits all the marks in entertainment and performance. And for anyone who is worried, you don’t have to know much about cars to have fun. It’s not entirely technical (and arguably, it probably wouldn’t be a great movie if it relied on deriving that sort of oil-changing, horsepower knowledge from the audience); I momentarily dissociated during the times Damon said a few things about cars, but still could laugh at other scenes. It might help to be able to appreciate the luster of metallic bodies in the same way that “Ride it better than a Teslaaaaaaaaa” pops up in my head whenever a Model S that passes me in my 2012 Honda Civic. And it might be great to have a sense of humor for something that relates to cars or whatever. But even if you can’t bother to care about any of those, the speed and thrill of Ford v Ferrari won’t be lost on any car-less, driving-less member of society.

“Let the suicide doors up” — Ferrari, probably

Furthermore, the American-ism parallels (read: insidious and capitalistic) between the Ford Motor Company and the current condition of the country also won’t be lost on those who feel negatively about the government. In one of the turning points of the film, Shelby and FORD are conferring about Ford Motor’s disastrous loss at one of the races (sans Miles, since his behavior didn’t mark him up to a “Ford man”), and Shelby has to convince him why Miles is needed in the team. Gazing out the window at the hangar where Ford used to launch their warplanes, FORD approves of Shelby’s unbarred plan through a rather ominous  “Go to war.” Aside from an automotive Allies v Axis Powers battle, FvF delineates the makings and fruits of the American dream from other cultures without shining in the nostalgic golden lights as other films before. Before they were employed by Ford, Miles warns Shelby about the dangers of working for a business that sees workers as numbers, and while at the time it seems to be a Miles-ism, there is a hinted natural reflection of the way we can be distrustful of our homeland.

If you let it, it’s very possible for the sadness and James Mangold’s orange-halo glows to wash over you (and believe it, Bale really does a phenomenal job in that). However, even in the metaphorical scale of what FvF represents, the film’s a small microcosm of the American mindset that persists through the decades, finding itself to be almost as timeless as much as a period sports drama could be.

Ford v Ferrari
dir. James Mangold
152 min

Opens Friday 11/15 @ pretty much everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Capitol Theatre, Apple Cinemas, or your local independently owned multiplex)

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