Will we celebrate petrol-guzzling car-racing films thirty years from now?
Perhaps the only sport where catching on fire is a possibility, the hardscrabble attempt by the Ford Motor Company to beat Ferrari in the ‘1966 24 Hours of Le Mans’ endurance race is captured with exuberance in James Mangold’s sports-drama, Ford v Ferrari.
The pressures faced to increase vehicle sales following an unprecedented financial slump finds Henry Ford II, then CEO of Ford (Tracy Letts), recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a previous Le Mans winner turned car designer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a perpetually difficult yet fabulously British racer, to build a car capable of dethroning Ferrari from top of the podium. With Ford having never competed in Le Mans proving an already big enough challenge for the motor-giant, Shelby and Miles are given ninety days to accomplish this enormous endeavour.
For all the high-octane exhilaration Mangold delivers with race scenes that have their sound and visuals synced so harmoniously that it transports the viewer behind the wheel of these fast-moving bombs-on-wheels, he spends just as much time in the pitstop building the films emotional structure. This emotional backbone is worn on the worried faces of the no-nonsense wife-of-Miles, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and their son Peter (Noah Jupe), who watch on as their husband/father risks life and limb so he may live out his dream.
While Ford v Ferrari indulges in the same beats that compose the sports-drama film blueprint (i.e. the concerned family watching from the sidelines, a famous rivalry, and under-dogs, etc., etc.), Mangold’s ability to showcase the rousing friendship between Shelby and Miles is where the film takes pole position. The buzzing relationship between these rev-head soulmates succeeds in (eventually) swerving Bale’s portrayal of the unaccommodating Miles out of caricature territory.
With Shelby, Damon reels in an impressive performance playing a character whose unwavering will to drive, as though it were a part of his being, is let down in body. Damon captures the lemons-into-lemonade nature of Shelby; a man who transfers the anguish of forced early retirement into his efforts to build the car that triumph’s over Ferrari. Supporting performances by Letts, Jon Bernthal, and Josh Lucas as corporate types that are equally as meddling as they are supportive of Shelby and Miles, hold solid.
If not evident by the predominantly male cast, Mangold makes no effort to disguise Ford v Ferrari as a film about white men staring at cars. He does not deny history, nor does he misrepresent it. He allows the prevalence of white men talking-shop, filling the gaping diversity hole that was 1960s America, to disseminate hard-boiled masculinity. The end result being akin to his Academy Award nominated work with Logan that explored the dangers of male aggression.
Throughout Ford v Ferrari, men squabble like fractious children, they retaliate when insulted (Ford wearing the pressure of America when taking down Ferrari), and sanitise themselves free of emotion (particularly worry). The extent of this enabling Miles to perceive deadly collisions with an insouciant gaze; driving past fiery debris as though it were roadkill on a highway.
The level of desensitivity expressed from a storytelling perspective can’t help but translate over into the responsibilities of the filmmakers, and begs to question whether a film like Ford v Ferrari – an undoubtedly entertaining feel-good flick that is perfect for families – risks being condemned in history due to its celebration of a sport posing great harm to the environment.
Will films like Rush and Ford v Ferrari be celebrated in thirty years? And will Hollywood begin to curb producing films like these amidst heated concerns over Climate-Crisis?
The jury is still out on the above, but on filmmaking merit alone, Ford v Ferrari offers a captivating movie-going experience that is worthy of its two-hour plus length.
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller