Despite my aversion to the complexity of the vroom-vroom-crashy-crashy machines called “cars” today, there was once a time I was obsessed with automobiles. I had every Matchbox car under the sun and, as a three-year-old, I could talk a car salesman under the table on the semantics of all of their new vehicles (Ford was my favorite, ironically and I drive a Ford today). But like all childhood infatuations, my love faded in the light of adolescence and I approach cars today the same way most people do: only when I need a new one, which, if I play my cards right, is close to never. Despite this, there is nothing a film can cover that will make me disinterested in the reality of a new James Mangold film. Mangold, known for films such as Walk the Line and Logan, exudes cool in every fiber of his being. He’s the ideal definition of masculinity in that he embraces the fun of it all while also addressing the constriction and toxicity that can come with a society that places so much value in masculinity. He’s the filmmaker every child’s father should love, and with that, despite itself, Ford v Ferrari is no different.
The year is 1966 and the Ford Motor Company is at the height of its popularity as the paragon of American engineering and ingenuity. Looking to expand upon its empire, Ford, led by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), seeks to enact a merger with Italian luxury car manufacturer Ferrari, led by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girrone). When the deal goes south due to Ford’s terms regarding Ferrari’s racing team, regarded as the best in the world, a war breaks out between the two companies, with Ford setting a goal to not only enter the racing car world but to defeat Ferrari at the upcoming 24 Hours at Le Mans race. Ford enlists the assistance of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American driver ever to win at Le Mans, to develop a race car to beat Ferrari. Shelby, in his terms of the agreement, enlists the help of English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a chaotically volatile but good-natured driver second-to-none in his abilities. Together, they must beat the insurmountable odds against both Ferrari and the bureaucracy at Ford, led by the vindictive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
Ford v Ferrari pretty much plays out exactly how you expect it to, and that’s not necessarily a problem, even if it does the film no favors. The difference with the film, as opposed to other films of its kind, is how it embraces these cliché, even arguably empty, elements by enhancing the craft surrounding the tropes. Mangold seems to know that this is solely a car film, through and through, and doesn’t want to change that. What he wants to do is create the best car film he can, putting his own stamp on the film that makes it more of a James Mangold film than that of a standard car film, and he does this to relative success.
That’s because Ford v Ferrari is just a damn fun movie at its core. It’s a film begging to be seen in the largest, loudest IMAX theater possible to feel every engine rev and drive-by whoosh in your bones. Even in the standard theater that the film was shown in at Film Fest 919, there were covered ears and shaking seats. This is a film that’s just as much of a sensory experience as it is a thematic one. It doesn’t seek to overload you with flashiness, as if you were watching a live-action version of Cars, but rather finds the ground of an odd paradox of grandiose intimacy. It’s big cars making tight turns with grand personalities in small bodies. That’s the game of Ford v Ferrari.
Ford v Ferrari, at its center, is nothing without its two leads. Damon does fine work as the illustrious Shelby, bringing a downhome energy that you don’t get very frequently from the straight-laced actor. It’s easy for Damon to fall into the same personality in every role ad infinitum and, while you still do get the classic Damon charm that is both his blessing and curse, it’s bookended by nuance that can only come from working with a director as sure of himself as Mangold. Yet, it’s Bale who steals the film from everyone else as Miles. Bale, an actor known for his intense transformations for various film roles, gets to play it pretty close to the chest for once. He doesn’t make an insane physical change other than being a bit lighter than usual, and he’s allowed to keep a spiritual form of his native Welsh accent, something not afforded to him nearly enough. Shelby describes Miles as a “puppy dog” early into the film as a gag to illustrate his fiery temper, but in the essence of Bale’s performance, it’s apparent that this description isn’t too far off. Puppies have tempers just as much as they have their sweet moments, they’re devils just as much as they’re angels, and it’s that sense of volatile vulnerability that makes Bale’s performance so special in the grand scheme of his career. Without the pretense of having to be someone completely different, Bale shines in his own right as an actor because he’s allowed to be himself for once.
Not that it’s a complaint about all films of its kind, but Ford v Ferrari is long. At 152 minutes, it easily took the cake for the longest film at Film Fest 919. The problem with this doesn’t come in its objective length, as some of the best films ever, plus many great films of recent note, have been very long, but Ford v Ferrari feels long. The film doesn’t have quite as breakneck of a pace as a film of its caliber might suggest and, because of that, it often feels that between races, despite how fun it is to watch Damon and Bale do their thing, the film grinds to a screeching halt. The film just isn’t as compelling when it’s dealing with the mental rat race that is the bureaucracy of the automobile industry as it is when it’s the actual races at hand. On top of that, the film goes on for about 20 minutes too long in its final act, adding narrative twists to the film that render the mood from the exhilarating race at Le Mans borderline moot. These are sequences that could’ve easily been summarized in a post-film title card. The film already has to explain much less significant events which make this last mini-act feel even more useless.
Still, these issues don’t take Ford v Ferrari down by much in its final product, but it does keep the film from feeling anything other than “solid.” It’s definitely in the upper echelon of the “Films Your Father Would Love” sub-category of films. It’s an exhilarating, pulse-pounding stunt track of a film that revels in the simplistic beauty that is race car driving, and the complexities that hide behind its perceived simplicity. The film works best during its races, as it simply can’t outdo itself in the film’s slower, more intimate scenes. These scenes work fine in personal moments, like with Miles’s wife (Catriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe), but they nearly stall the film when it tries to test the waters of making a political statement on corporate bureaucracy. Damon and Bale are the best they’ve been in a hot minute, which is ironic considering it’s two of the more bare-bones performances each respective actor has given in recent memory, but that’s where I think the biggest strength of Ford v Ferrari lies. For the most part, this is a film that knows exactly what it is and doesn’t seek to be anything different than that, it just wants to be the best version of itself, and that should be pretty cool with most people.
In theaters November 15th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.