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
Continued from part one...
One of the first lessons I learned in production is that if people have input on the creative then most will gladly make it. As I’ve mentioned, Stephen Soderberg gave a speech on the state of cinema at the San Francisco Film Festival, mentioning that he deals with executive who don’t particularly enjoy movies beyond the big franchises, let alone the history of cinema. Coincidentally, Soderberg compared the process to a bunch of marketing executives telling Mercedes engineers how to build a car (making me wonder if Mangold might have heard the speech). In my experience, art by committee turns into hackneyed ersatz. Trust the people in charge of the project, and if the project doesn’t work, replace the people. Unfortunately, both cars and entertainment make getting into the details appear sexy.
Shelby explains that he needs to be in completely charge and they need to let Ken drive. Ford acquiesces and agrees, ensuring that Shelby will now report directly to him. Shelby reconciles things with Ken in a fight scene that I was sure was going to be stupid, but given their relationship is absolutely perfect; neither wants to seriously hurt the other, but they take it up to the line.
Their relationship frames another fascinating relationship between cinema and cars. Leading up to the fight, Shelby kept explaining the need for Ken to play well with the suits; knowing that if he kept up the crass sarcasm and profanity that he’d get terminated. In a brilliant scene after Ken embarrassed himself in front of Beebe, Shelby gives a speech while staring right at Ken in the audience, talking in wild praise of what Ken and we think is about him; before Shelby then looks away toward Ford and mentions his name specifically. It’s a brilliant moment of Shelby explaining how things need to work for them to do what they’re doing while also giving gratitude.
I’ve worked as a professional producer/director now for four years of my life. It is a surreal experience because it is even more fun and satisfying than I imagined an aspiring kid. However, the part that is less fun and that I never even anticipated was the range of personalities that you must get along with. It ultimately comes down to trust. Everyone wants to be trusted to do what they’re going to do. My best friend always said it best, “Don’t say no to those who cut your paychecks.” Nobody in charge of you, whether justified or not, wants to be told no. It requires you to be diplomatic. You have to swallow pride and ego and enter in a constant stream of negotiations, which if you respect the person and they respect you, can be fun. In the case of Shelby, he accommodated the dynamic. On the other hand Ken refused to do the same. Then again, they both end up winning.
While I wanted to say the dynamic reminded me of a producer/director, it applies to any creative relationship. Director/Cinematographer, Producer/Talent, Showrunner/Writer. They all demand a particular sensitivity to the other person; especially if there’s a history. No one wants to be told what they’re doing is wrong, but disagreements are inevitable. Shelby and Ken share a mutual respect for one another that transcends friendship. It is a respect for the other’s craft and how great they are. Ken respects the cars Shelby builds and Shelby respects Ken’s way of driving them.
Shelby receives carte blanche on the next build and Ken comes around, and if I had one problem it was around this point it was when Ford visits the factory. Ford announces he’s promoted Bebee as Director of Racing (or some silly title), meaning that they now have to again go through Bebee who’s first order of business is firing Ken. In a fun little scene, they lock Bebee in the office as Shelby gives Ford a test drive; stopping across the track to demand that Ford keeps Ken in the position. After Ford cries at the machine’s power, he deflects the demand and says Bebee will remain in charge. Shelby then gives another speech, betting his company against Ken winning. It’s good, but the whole thing felt like an exact repeat of what we just saw in the first half. Even if autobiographical, I think the final moment - when Bebee demands Ken slow down - could have been made all the more powerful, given that we think Ford is still the go to man, rather than reneging on his agreement once again..
They arrive at La Man and it’s the scene we’ve been waiting for. Other than the taste at the start, the last couple hours were simply watching a machine get tested, which was thrilling enough. Both Ford and Ferrari have four cars on their team.
There is a fascinating use of rules for the races. In the first scene, Ken learns his trunk hood is too low and he’s disqualified. He cites the previous year’s rules, learns they’ve been changed, and proceeds to pound his trunk with a hammer to meet the qualifications. During the build, the one issue Ford couldn’t overcome was having the brakes burn out. As is, it’d require them to replace the brake pads which could take up to an hour. They design a type of removable caliper connected to the wheel and brake pads all bolted into the axel. I believe the rule prevented the crews from building on the car, to which they argue that they’re not building but replacing the entire wheel apparatus. It’s these details and others throughout the film that make you appreciate the details behind the machine and the way it needs to operate. There are even moments of questionable cheating, such as when Shelby tosses one of his lug nuts near the Ferrari curb, making them freak out as to whether they forgot to attach it.
It also makes the race itself all the more interesting as we comprehend how the machines work.
For instance, in the opening scene, Ken disparages a potential customer for buying an expensive fast car, but failing to drive it the way it was designed to drive - a common criticism seen in such series as Jay Leno's garage, where picks up rich celebrities in their expensive rides only to discover they’re uninterested in driving the cars how they should be. From there on, we hear Ken in the car assessing what he thinks is working and what’s not; the feel of the engine, the shift, the grip, the suspension and turning. We hear him go through each element and while I don’t necessarily follow what everything meant, it opened the complexity of a high performance car.
I recently have gotten into debates with friends about whiskey, wine, and cigars and the ability for experienced people to differentiate good from bad. What all tastes the same to one person, has vast differences to another. Compared to cinema, most viewers do not know precisely what makes a particular scene great or engaging. They might talk in generalities - I liked the look, I didn’t like the performances; I like bourbon, I don’t like rye; this is sweet, that is sour. Ken talks about the vibrations, sounds, feel, and control in ways most would never understand; both because they haven’t driven race cars and probably haven’t even driven high performance cars. I was fortunate to work for Motor Trend for a few years on their digital shows, and got to drive just one Hemi-charged Plymouth Fury and I immediately understood the appeal. There is fun in driving a machine like that that is unlike anything else I know; everyone has the same reaction - pure, child-like laughter.
The race is one of the finest I’ve seen, where the line between real and effects had completely blurred. I could feel the rumble in my stomach. Mangold stated that he wanted to put the audience in the cars; something you hear so often in the same films but fully delivers.
After surviving burnt out brakes, pouring rain, and dodging countless crashed competitors, Ken ties with Ferrari. Another detail we learn is that the cars can’t handle 7000 RPMs for long periods of time. It’s too much heat and demand. It’s a perfect set up as Ferrari and Ford test their limits, pushing it down the straightaway, gaining top speed until Ferrari’s engine busts. Ken is in first place by miles and the race is his.
Sure enough Bebee strikes again, demanding Shelby tell Ken to slow down and tie with the other two Ford drivers where they can then cross the finish line together; coming straight from Ford himself. Shelby knows it was Bebee’s idea, but also knows there’s not enough time to do anything about it. During a pit stop, Shelby tells Ken it’s his choice. It’s a fascinating sequence from Mangold and Bale as they make us first agree with Ken’s initial rebelliousness, going full speed and seeming not to slow down, to him then driving down the straightaway; his face changing. I can’t recall another scene where with minimal dialogue an actor pulled us through the thought process and changed our minds. It’s his pride that’s making him keep going, knowing that it could cost Shelby the job. He slows down, figuring he’s still in first place and waits for the team.
Sure enough, Bebee was right, as there is a particular magnificence to the image. It’s an American symbol we try and aspire toward; doing what is honorable rather than what is selfish. It wasn’t about beating a record, or one driver taking first miles ahead of everyone else; it was about an American company competing to show it was the best.
Unfortunately, for a reason I wish the film better explained, Ken’s partner received first place; shocking Ken who figured the act alone should warrant the medal. Turns out that because McClaren and Amon started nearly 60 feet in front of Ken, they theoretically finished first. A bone up that’s all the more fascinating in Ken failing to take account of it, and leaving you wonder if Bebee knew.
Ford would go on to win the next three years up to 1969, though from then on since, no American car company has taken the prize. Ken would later die in an auto race track acc