“James Bond does not drive a Ford.”
“Well, that’s because he’s a degenerate.”
This just feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? There’s something about Ford v Ferrari that evokes the days of cinema gone by, even though its closest analog I can think of is Ron Howard’s criminally underseen masterstroke, Rush (there’s also Le Mans, a 1971 Steve McQueen picture, but I’ve not seen it). It is, for better or worse, and old-school racing picture about companies trying to one-up each other and cars that go really, really fast.
The film begins as such, with the Ford Motor Company being out-maneuvered by Enzo Ferrari. So incensed by this humiliation is Henry Ford II that he becomes obsessed with defeating Ferrari at Le Mans, the most prestigious – and dangerous – race in the world. To do so, he conscripts the only American to ever win Le Mans: Carroll Shelby, a cowboy hat wearing Matt Damon, who was once on top of the world, but had to retire from racing due to a heart condition.
A question might already have occurred to you; how in the world does Ford v Ferrari position Ford, which was one of the most powerful companies even back then, as the underdog? Quite simply, it doesn’t take their side. We’re with Ford only so far as we’re with Matt Damon, and he’s not always treated very well by them. For instance, he wants Christian Bale’s volatile Ken Miles to be the one to drive in Le Mans. Problem is, his hostile reputation puts him at odds with what the higher-up want a “Ford driver” to look like.
That’s only the beginning of Ford’s attempts to micromanage Damon (after, of course, promising him complete freedom to conduct himself however he wants). On the one hand, bravo to Ford v Ferrari for being very clear-eyed about how shamelessly and soullessly a big corporation would work to remorselessly screw over a group of people who are trying, for all intents and purposes, to give them the biggest win of their lives.
On the other hand, this is a long, long movie, and a lot of it is a little meandering. A lot of the non-racing running time is committed to making the same point over and over again about how big companies are not Matt Damon’s friend, but he just can’t see it. James Mangold began his career with character-driven films like Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, and went on to make Logan, arguably the most character-driven superhero movie ever made. Here, there’s an element of that that’s missing. In something like Rush, the emotional core is the relationship is the constantly evolving rivalry between Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Here, the Bale/Damon dynamic never really gets close to that level, nor does any other relationship, for that matter.
This would be more palatable, I think, if the script were just a bit better. Right at the beginning, we see a bunch of German investors who are interested in investing in Damon and Bale. They’re told, however, that Bale is “difficult.” One won race later, and the lead German investor has a moment to helpfully inform us that, “He’s difficult…but good.” Thanks, I needed that.
That’s not the last of the clunky lines Ford v Ferrari throws our way, and trust me, they all hurt just about as much as that wrench Bale throws at Damon. Fortunately, they’re all made worth it by the exemplary racing sequences. Those make it absolutely worth it to have seen the film on the big screen. I don’t know if it’s better than Rush in this regard – I’ll have to rewatch that film to see – but it’s bloody good all the same. Mangold accomplishes a great feat, in that he very effectively puts you in the car with Bale as he’s racing for his life, always inches away from death.
I’ve seen Ford v Ferrari described as a “dad movie.” Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s certainly a throwback to the era they’ll remember. Josh Lucas plays a great “you’ll love to hate him” villain who comes to embody the corporate side of racing. Caitriona Balfe is great, but she’s also more or less just playing “the wife.” Noah Jupe’s also great, but he’s also just playing “the son.” And for a movie called Ford v Ferrari, there is basically no input from Ferrari beyond the opening and closing minutes. Still, it is entertaining, and, for all its pacing and scripting issues, very cinematic.