Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Directed by James Mangold

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This is both exhilarating and frustrating.  Ford v Ferrari can be extremely fun, but it’s so simplistic in ways that feel like something is missing or actively covered up.  It’s a movie with clear heroes and villains, antagonists that are unnaturally unlikeable (outside of Hollywood movies) and slimy.  They exist to be beaten, sacrificed for the crowd’s self-righteous pleasure.  We won, they lost, everything is as it should be.

It’s maybe something I feel which isn’t completely fair but instead influenced by my experience watching the movie, seated next to three friends who chatted throughout the screening, one muttered “that’s why you don’t mess with the USA” and at one point literally held up the finger to Enzo Ferrari.

I couldn’t really believe that these were the thoughts and feelings they could be taking away from the movie, but then watching it all with that in mind, well that’s where it started to feel a little too black and white.  It’s us versus them, with the “us” roundly celebrated as heroic and the “them” defined by nothing more than that they’re not us.  It’s like an old western in which the Native Americans are portrayed as brutes and the cowboys as the beacons of peace.

So that was lacking, especially for a movie titled Ford v Ferrari.  Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) doesn’t have too much to do here (though he does get one kind of incredible moment), and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is even more underrepresented.  It’s a rivalry but we don’t really get to experience the rivalry.

So the film is mostly about the friendship between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale).  They’re drivers, or Shelby was before he was forced to retire, and they work together to help Ford build and race a car that will beat the Ferrari at Le Mans ’66, a 24-hour race.

They’re a bit of an odd couple, Miles a bit unhinged and Shelby almost literally a cowboy, between the hat and his southern drawl.  And it’s their friendship which probably does work the best, aided by the fact that they are lorded over by cartoonish buffoonery in the form of the Ford executives.  To force two characters to bond it’s always easier to have an antagonist about whom they can share mutual hatred.

Of course the story is true, though to what degree I’m not sure.  So maybe these characters really were buffoons, but if so then it’s the movie’s job to transcend that.  Or maybe, as is actually the case, movies just don’t have time to represent everyone fairly.  Or f*ck it maybe that’s just a piss poor excuse.

Either way the important characters are developed, though even they only grow with the expected ebbs and flows of movie biopics, and the secondary characters are just there cheering them on or there to leer at the protagonists and make us feel good when they are eventually embarrassed by the protagonists.

Putting aside my own gripes the movie is quite entertaining during all the racing scenes. The tension is adequately established before each of the important races so we know exactly what’s at stake and can chart the rise and fall of the drama over the course of the sequence.  These sequences become engaging short films, like an exciting sporting event between your favorite team and your most hated team.

It’s all fine.  That’s where I usually end up.  Movies are hard, they’re fun and imperfect, and this is very much that.  It does what people want it to do, what fans of racing want it to do.  The performances are good, it’s fun to look at, your pulse will quicken, and all of that.

But it just feels like there was a little more gas in the engine, more to explore and investigate, characters to dig into and understand.  The most interesting aspect of the broad story is that Henry Ford II just wanted the pride of winning, of beating Ferrari.  He’s a rich, stuffy businessman who wants to look good and humiliate his opponents, at least as he’s depicted here.  He’s maybe just a little too bored, a little too insecure about his legacy.  He wants to win, and that’s as far, it seems, as his passion for the sport goes.

It’s also a bit funny the way the film works to make sure we understand that Ford is the underdog, even though they have so much more money and resources at their disposal.  The film works quite hard to make us feel like we’re watching the Mighty Ducks, but I think the film should embrace the singed edges of this story rather than making it too neat.  Let’s see more of Ford’s ego and desire to win, maybe see more of how he doesn’t exactly understand the sport.  And I definitely wanted to know more about Enzo Ferrari. The story from his point of view could be quite fascinating, a man who (I must assume) had great passion for the sport and then watches as this American behemoth of a company comes in and outspends him just because all they want is to win.

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