Image from New York Post (Christian Bale goes from bat-mobiles to America’s once great empire of cars)
I am not a sports fan. I am not a racing fan. I am not a sports or racing film fan. But I am a fan of history, even when it pains me.
Ford v Ferrari is based on the true story of two men, one a yank(Matt Damon) and one a Brit (Christian Bale) working together to give Ford motor company a chance for an unusual honor: glory at the racetrack. And not just any racetrack: the king s**t of racetracks: Le Mans.
Since 1923, that French city has been host to an annual 24 hour endurance gambit where racers from across the world not only have to make it to first, they have to be first the longest. If that wasn’t pressure enough, no obstacle or inconvenience, save for one that destroyed the racetrack I suppose, will stop the race when it begins. That includes high speed racing in blistering rainstorms. How fun.
Carroll Shelby is a former racer who had to stop racing because the experience of being in a superfast vehicle with a litany of terrible dangers isn’t very good for one’s cardio in the long run. He becomes a car designer and engineer to compensate for being unable to continue a career he clearly loved, at least in the way Damon’s performance framed it.
Ken Miles is a WW2 veteran who, based on Bale’s performance, wanted a way to keep the life or death rush that war brings going in a way that didn’t involve killing people. Now, he becomes both an ace race car driver and engineer and the only person he is willing to endanger anymore is himself, much to the very mixed thoughts of his wife and child.
Ford motor company is facing trouble in its sales of cars and with it, their earnings. If only they could’ve foreseen the peril they will in time face with Japan’s auto industry but this is the mid-60s. Japan is focusing on making Godzilla and Gamera films at the moment. Henry Ford II is both dealing with getting his company back on track “ricochet” and feeling worthy of living up the legacy of his legendary and very complicated father of the same name.
Ford II needs an out, and Jon Bernthal’s Lee Iaccoca, the company’s Vice President, seems to have the solution: first try buying Ferrari, maker of some truly legendary European cars. If that doesn’t work out( it doesn’t) enter the racing scene to get back at the Italian company and show the world that Ford still has it. That’s where Shelby and Miles come in.
Ford v Ferrari is yet another prominent example in contemporary cinema( not that it necessarily went away for awhile) of the biopic-period piece-take with some amount of grain of salt this really happened picture. Nothing in FVF is necessarily too crazy that it it’s improbable and sometimes some crazy freaking things are part of our history.
One scene that sticks out is a part where Miles takes a skeptical Ford II for a ride on the car they’re making to win big at Le Mans: the Ford GT40. After a truly fast and zany ride around the track with Ford II screaming and gasping for it to stop, the company president is reassured that Shelby and Miles’ more hands off, lack-of-corporate-talons-in-the-way approach is for the better.
It’s a great scene involving needed comic relief from the dark seriousness of what would happen if there was an accident involving the car and its engines. Again, not something too out there but did it really happen? Did James Mangold along with writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller pull that out of their trunks, so to speak?
Who can say( for now), but I do think it’s not the type of movie to paint such broad ahistorical moments onto the screen like Emmerich’s The Patriot and Bay’s Pearl Harbor. It seems genuinely interested in telling the story of how pride of work and a desire to push technology to the limit can pay off in historic returns.
The results of the 1966 Le Mans, of which the Ford GT40 is being developed for, are public knowledge. You can right now go to a racing website or Wikipedia and spoil for yourselves who wins in the competition between Ford and Ferrari.
I imagine many people already knew the outcome and yet still came to see this movie resulting in satisfactory opinion. Why?
Well, how Shelby, Miles and Ford got to the point that resulted in the historic race is part of the thrill. How did they get past the obstacles and limitations of what was possible with racing car technology over 50 years ago? How did they find a way to surpass it? How did the drive and will of those who made and raced the cars get past challenges both from Ferrari with its then living carmaker legend, Enzo, and from those within Ford itself?
Was there that much resistance from bureaucrats within Ford or was that invented or fudged to suit the drama needed for a three act structured tale? Importance of the truth aside, does that really matter?
What Mangold, Damon, Bale and the others sought with this film was to tell a feel-good story about the then triumphs of vehicle engineering and the men who rode them. Not unlike books and movies about the space race (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13,etc.) which was happening concurrently with Ford’s trials, it’s about the idea that not everyone can have the courage and the skill to do what people like Ken Miles did.
Winning the Le Mans race and breaking records with a race car are not the same in terms of scope and audacity as the balls needed to go into space, keep going into space and eventually make it to the moon.
Yet, based on the visceral and loud nature of the racing scenes which at times are hard to watch, not so much when something inevitably crashes but the distinct likelihood of crashes or some other horrible fate, there is a not universal grit needed to do what was done on the track. As for myself, I have a hard time mentally coping with things that probably aren’t even that big of a deal like intravenous needles and blood labs.
Because of the time in which it’s set, the racing attire and the style of cars involved, I find it safe to call Ford v. Ferrari the best Speed Racer movie ever made. For those knowledgeable of the landmark anime/manga from the 1960s, you will absolutely understand the comparison. Even better, Bale’s thick British accent, while likely authentic, is at times just as hard to comprehend as the original English dubs of Speed Racer where everyone talks fast.
Because of that accent and that I really am not up to snuff with automobile facts big and small, for racing or otherwise, some terminology and moments flew fast over my head and I imagine will not or have not been alone in this regard.
Fortunately, the macro tale that is being told is comprehensible and at times may seem a little too obvious. Discerning what seemed real and half-true also made it a somewhat distracting experience worsened by myself having a roaring headache while watching brought on by my poor sleeping habits.
Still worth a watch, with some great acting, great almost George Miller/Mad Max level use of automobile carnage and a soundtrack and feel that is perfectly attuned to the time and place.
It’s honestly a decent companion piece to Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood, if only in terms of the setting’s authentic attention to detail. In one of these two 60s’ love letters, you will know when history is taking a pitstop. And what a pitstop it was.