Director: James Mangold
Writer: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Producer: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, and James Mangold
by Jon Cvack
When Ford v Ferrari ended I was left nostalgic. The movie reminded me of the types of action and action-dramas I watched growing up - Apollo 13 (1995), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000), fragments of Con Air (1997); the type of movie that took place within the realm of reality and not about blowing up as much shit as possible and puking out the most extravagant visual effects pieces possible (climax of Con Ari not withstanding). They’re all relatively small stories. Space capsules, cars driving around the city, a plane, a prison, and yet they all felt gigantic.
In an interview during its screening at TIFF, James Mangold mentioned that in addition to the obvious, the story was about the creative process. There are the suits who represent the money given to a creative team to create a product and win a top prize. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the best movies I’ve seen about the process of making movies.
The story involves the 1966 Le Man held yearly in France in which a team of drivers sponsored by the leading sports car manufacturers raced their designs for 24 hours straight. At this point in the story, Ferrari has won the previous three or four and back in the states, Ford Motor Company, led by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), is introduced years earlier by shutting down the assembly line and chastising his workers for failing to give enough passion. Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) knows it’s because rather than attempting to create a sexy product competitive with burgeoning European sports cars, Ford has continued with bland and cheap designs that cater to the masses. Iacocca gives a presentation showing James Bond and his Aston Martin, explaining that the GI’s who’ve come home have gotten homes and found success and now want to spend their money on better toys. Ford and his worm-tongue sycophant executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) laugh off the idea, refusing to sell by cars by using sex or power. Iacocca doesn’t back down. Ferrari has captured the world’s imagination. Again, they laugh, explaining that Ford spends as much on toilet paper as Ferrari spends on their entire fleet. Iacocca then tells them about their losses to Ferrari in the last few years of Le Man which captures Ford II’s attention.
Having worked in production start ups for the last ten years I struggle to think of a better film that catches the condescending and pompous conservatism of business people. There’s an old phrase out in entertainment - to paraphrase, the easiest way to retain a job is to say no to big change or risky endeavors. When it comes to film - sequels, prequels, remakes, and bottomless franchises have dominated the space. As rogerebert.com’s Glenn Kelly says, “...a movie like ‘Ford v Ferrari’ would be a staple of studio fare. Nowadays, it’s actually considered a risk, despite being, by an older standard, about as mainstream as mainstream gets. ‘Ford v Ferrari’ delivers real cinema meat and potatoes. And its motor show spectacle deserves to be seen in a theater.”
It all connects back to cinema. Ford could be seen as any of the major studios continuing to lean into franchises, averse to taking any type of risk. Then again the risk is actually high, as the number of original films within the same category which have failed is enough to make anyone cautious. Perhaps it’s not that studios are so risk-averse so much as waiting for the proper director to make it happen; such as Mangold did with Logan (creating one of the handful of MCU movies I enjoyed). It’s a demonstration of trust and it’s what makes Henry Ford II such an interesting character; he wants the profits but he also wants the respect and accolades. Just like any great studio head.
Ford rejects the race, but instructs Iacocca to visit Italy and make Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) an offer to buy the company. Scuderia i surrounded by his own obsequious executives, one who secretly calls Fiat who counters with a far greater offer to buy Ferarri out. It was a con; Ferrari used Ford to up the bid. Humiliated, Ford agrees to race and win the Le Man, no matter the cost.
Around all this, we meet Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as the sharp witted and irascible mechanic and race car driver with an endearing and beautiful wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and equally charming kid Peter (Noah Jupe). He’s underwater with the IRS who soon swoop in and foreclose his business. I’m fairly certain this whole story was apocryphal, as it had that taste of a demand for extra stakes. It’s more interesting for Ken to race in order to provide for his family than just deciding to ignore his own safety. It’s also that type of scene that works in this type of film. If the point is to tell a great action-packed drama, then embellishing these details are for the greater good.
Iacocca recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to build out the race car, who in a uniquely Matt Damon kind of monologue in which we’re not sure if he’s serious or bullshitting the other characters, he talks about how difficult it is to build a car and complete the race, let alone safely. Iacocca offers him a blank check and Matt Damon immediately hires Ken as the driver.
There is a great majesty to how Mangold films these scenes, where even the smallest dialogue scenes feel large and part of a massive and exciting world. The colors are vibrant, of teals, whites, and salmons, often against a desert backdrop. The pace is fast, as when you see the movie is two and a half hours long, you wonder if it could maintain the story. Yet it immerses you within a tale of sport, business, mechanics, and philosophy where each scene rips you through the ideas.
Arriving at a Ford event to kick off the challenge, Ken and his son find the newest mustang model as the public pines over it. Peter opens the door and checks inside and Leo Bebee demands he back up from the car, pissing off Ken who - not knowing the man - proceeds to state precisely why Mustang’s are just pretty ornaments disguising mediocre performance; a point I recall wondering about in the documentary A Faster Horse (2015); part history and part reality show as we watch Ford engineer’s design the next year’s Mustang model. One of the most fascinating moments is when all of the department heads get together in order to discuss how much power they can squeeze out of a small budget; again, comparable to a film production in attempting to create as good of product as they can within their limitations.
Leo’s fractured ego demands he vindicate himself. After Ken demonstrates his skill, Leo takes Shelby aside, explaining that he needs to replace him, explaining that Ken doesn’t fit the image of Ford; that is, tall, built, charming, and American. Being the night before the race, Leo breaks the news. Crushed, Ken accepts like a gentleman, working in the garage throughout the next 24 hours, listening to the race on the radio.
Ford loses big, and although it was Leo Bebee’s call he continues to move up the chain. In the film's best non-action scene, Shelby meets at Ford’s office, hanging outside and watching the team of his secretaries answering phones, responding to messages, and exchanging a red folder, soon ending up with Leo Bebee’s hands who leads him into the meeting where Bebee hands over the folder to Ford who wants to know why he shouldn't fire Shelby. In another incredible Damon monologue - this time fully authentic - Shelby explains how he watched the red folder exchange hands, assuming over twenty people probably touched it, each lending their thoughts and opinions until everyone can agree on what’s appropriate to present to Ford; a watered down mess of data that essentially boils down to minor changes and the status quo. Although I can’t find the specific quote, I believe he says “You can’t win a race by committee”; again, a shout out to the infamous problem of Art by Committee which plagues entertainment.
Continue to part 2...
BELOW: A movie where everything goes back to sex
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