In Rush (2013) Ron Howard turned the rivalry between racing car drivers into an engrossing portrait of two uncompromising personalities. In Ford v Ferrari James Mangold has stepped up a few gears, giving us a movie about fast cars, larger-than-life personalities and corporate hubris. It’s also a buddy film, a celebration of the common man and the nuclear family, and a sophisticated entertainment that moves almost as swiftly as the cars.
The result is one of those rare features that may hold just as much appeal for fans of The Fast and the Furious as it does for the arthouse crowd. There’s barely a scene in which cars are not being driven, discussed, designed and argued about, but somehow it’s not the cars that matter.
Ford v Ferrari is about pride and saving face. It’s about friendship and betrayal. It’s about getting your priorities right, and doing a deal with the devil. The novelty in this instance is that the villain and the conquering hero are one and the same: the Ford Motor Company.
In the early 1960s, CEO, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) was looking for ways to improve sales in the face of growing competition. One of his executives, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) argues that the company is suffering from an image problem, failing to appeal to a new generation of car-buyers looking for something more stylish and sporty. His bright idea is that Ford should buy the firm of Ferrari, who dominate the world of GT racing but are basically broke.
Iacocca and his team fly to Italy to meet with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), but the deal breaks down in an ugly manner. Ferrari’s parting message for for the boss is to tell him he is not Henry Ford, he’s Henry Ford the second.
This stiletto-like insult pricks Ford’s determination to meet and crush Ferrari on the racetrack, no matter how much it costs. The svengali they go looking for is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American to win the 24 hour epic at Le Mans, albeit in an Aston Martin. Shelby has a heart problem and can no longer race professionally, but he compensates by driving his sportscar like a maniac.
The man he wants to drive and help design the miracle car is Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Born in Birmingham UK, a veteran of the Second World War, Miles is as lean as a starving wolf and just as personable. Although dour by temperament he is prone to bursts of anger, and always willing to say exactly what he thinks – to anyone. It’s quite an effort for Shelby to enlist Miles in the project, but even before commencing work he has made an enemy of one of the top executives, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
We know that Ken is the only man who can achieve what Ford wants, but Leo is determined to squeeze him out. We also know that Ken, for all his crankiness, is a devoted husband and father. His wife, Mollie (Catriona Balfe) is more than a match. To make a point she can even emulate his ferocity behind the steering wheel. Her response when Ken and Shelby come to blows is worth the price of your movie ticket.
The battles and intrigues must be resolved before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when the Ford team needs to be united for its joust with Ferrari. This is the climax towards which this long movie builds, with Mangold doing an exceptional job at racheting up the tension as we become ever more closely entwined with the lives of the lead characters. One can feel how much Matt Damon and Christian Bale enjoyed these roles which provide the emotional highs and lows every actor craves.
As all American movies today find ways of relating to the Age of Trump, one of the most significant aspects of the story may be the portrayal of the executive board of the Ford Motor Company, which keeps looking for ways to stifle innovation and undermine its own investment. The company is a feudal affair with Henry Ford II as monarch, and the board as a court of sycophants and schemers. Does his sound familiar?
Ken Miles is the resourceful ‘little man’ who will accept no bullshit from these courtiers who need his skills even as they resent his very existence. The executives believe their capital input guarantees absolute control and are frustrated to find that so many aspects of the project need to be negotiated by a man who makes them feel like a bunch of phonies. This confrontation between the individual and the forces of the state or corporation has been a recurrent theme in American culture from pioneering days until the present. In the 1960s the beats and hippies defined their enemy as “the Establishment” or the “military-industrial complex”. The Ford Motor Company ticks every box.
It’s only in the car that Ken is completely in control. On the race track he draws on his experience and his reflexes, making life-and-death decisions on every lap. He is so closely attuned to the GT40 that he becomes one with the vehicle. This is something we can all admire, just as we can all unite in our dislike of Ford. The tragic irony is that American life is never defined by rugged individuals, free spirits and non-conformists, but by those corporate giants who chew them up and declare themselves the winners.
Ford v Ferrari
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Catriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone
USA/France, rated M, 152 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 November, 2019