‘Ford v. Ferrari’ is a Formulaic Feel-Good Underdog Story

My first boyfriend in college was a car guy. He drove a souped-up silver Subaru (a ‘Suby’ as he’d affectionately refer to it), with an obnoxious spoiler on the rear that my dad once ruminated on with minor disdain. I never attempted to learn about cars or take any interest when he’d talk to me about them. I didn’t – and still don’t – care about cars. Driving cars, looking at cars, thinking about cars, or anything to do with how they’re made or how they work. When I broke up with him I felt relief that I would no longer have to barely pretend to care when someone would talk to me about cars. I begrudgingly got my license when I was twenty-two, and begrudgingly bought a car only because I needed one to drive to my new job. I found cars to be one of the most uninteresting things to put any amount of my thought process towards. The concept of cars nearly puts me to sleep. Incidentally, I was never a fan of the Cars movies as a child.

But there was something about Ford v. Ferrari – the newest feature from Logan director James Mangold, chronicling the head-to-head between two major motor vehicle companies as one begins to fall into obscurity with the changing times – that unexpectedly caught my notice. Perhaps, it was Christian Bale’s thick, cockney accent, purportedly his native tongue and hardly ever put to film, accompanied by a seemingly constant sweaty, grease-stained brow, slouching shoulders and nasty, tough-talking attitude. Perhaps it was the banjo-twanging riff that revs like a race car during the trailer, or the fervent, blood-pumping, testosterone-laden energy as sleek cars skidded and swerved through tracks, or the hooting and hollering from the sidelines – or maybe it was Jon Bernthal’s beautiful face. But there was something about seeing those boys go fast that grabbed my attention from the get-go. And I wanted to see those boys go even faster.

Well, the boys do go quite fast. In a timely story about the looming presence of big businesses threatening to overtake the little guy, and the negative consequences of company (maybe even, say…studio?) meddling when the underdogs are owned by the evil corporation. Though a fairly standard biopic that hits most, if not all, familiar beats, it’s a fast, fun (though considerably very long) tale of the outsiders making their way in, and the sacrifices made when the people in positions of power only want what’s best for themselves.

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, serviceable as ever) was once a famous race car driver – that is, until he started only selling cars. After winning the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, Shelby is diagnosed with a heart condition that prevents him from driving too fast, and he’s forced into early retirement, as rumours swirl around his name that he simply lost his nerve. Meanwhile, the Ford Motor Company is experiencing a crisis – now, in 1963, run by the bumbling Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Ford cars are slowly slipping into obscurity, more of a wholesome staple of a bygone era and unfit to run parallel with the hip, James Dean, James Bond-loving young roadsters of the 1960s. Seeing their sales slipping, and after a failed deal with the cash-strapped but far more popular Ferrari, Ford goes after Shelby. Ford wants Shelby to help them build a winning car to compete in the Le Mans and thus boost their sales, and so Shelby enlists the additional help of a bulldog of a man named Ken Miles (sweet, positively trash-mouthed Christian Bale). A mechanic and whip-smart car expert, Ken races his own unsponsored cars in his spare time but soon has his family’s only source of income, his auto repair garage, shut down by the IRS. Though initially at odds with Shelby, Miles comes to his aid, if not simply for the money it will bring his family.

Much of the film is spent witnessing Miles and Shelby trial-and-error their race car creation, learning to work with one another towards their common goal, as Ford does everything it can to interfere with their process. They are especially averse to Miles’ demeanour (referring to him as not a “Ford man”), a constant source of Leo Beebe and Ford II’s pushback towards the pair. Though the underdog in comparison to Ferrari, Ford is still a company with only money and appearances in its best interests, the face of which belongs to Beebe (Josh Lucas), a sneering Bond villain and the personified equivalent of the death of creativity. It’s a fitting narrative to see released during a time when many big budget films see their filmmakers’ visions stamped on by test screenings and studio meddling – companies less interested in risk-taking than in what they believe will line their pockets the thickest. The little guys are often beholden to the interests of big business; indie directors helming superhero films are still obliged to the known formula. Shelby and Miles are employed so that Ford can step out on a limb and take a risk in the same way that Marvel Studios employ smaller directors with distinct visions, like Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright, to direct their films. Their visions can only go as far as the company will allow them to, and even with their creative touch, the end result still feels like a mass-marketed product.

Though a biopic – and a sports one to be exact – there’s enough snarky banter from Ken Miles and exhilarating race scenes to keep even the least mechanically-inclined like myself engaged throughout the film’s hefty one hundred and fifty two minute run-time. Bale, slouchy, gaunt, and British as hell, is on top form opposite Damon’s straight man Shelby – I mean, has Matt Damon ever truly excelled at acting? It’s also wonderful to see Jon Bernthal (who plays Ford vice president Lee Iacocca) not killed before the twenty-minute mark of a movie for once in his life, and Tracy Letts is quietly infuriating as the dim Henry Ford II wrestling with ever-existing in the shadow of his legendary father. Also, it wasn’t until well after Miles’ and Leo Beebe’s delightfully wicked initial exchange that I realised Josh Lucas and Christian Bale were in American Psycho together, and, well, that was just wonderful to think about.

It’s also ironic that the film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, the production company notoriously swallowed up this year by the ravenous Disney money-making machine. Though initially squeamish about releasing Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, there were no qualms with a sports biopic about a couple of outsiders fighting to maintain their creative autonomy. It’s a particularly benign film with a message more necessary than lowbrow, teenage jokes about Nazis being secretly homosexual. And, perhaps, the benign, simplistic nature of the film makes it all the more insidious that Disney wouldn’t have misgivings towards putting it out into the world – a prelude for what’s to come in terms of how Disney sees fit to release smaller, less offensive pieces of media. Or maybe not, as Jojo Rabbit is about as risky as a particularly played-out piece of sketch comedy, and the benevolent biopic is the one harbouring a timelier, anti-corporate message. Either way, Ford v. Ferrari is an entertaining, real-life story about the struggle of sticking to your guns in the face of corporate greed. The boys certainly do go quite fast in this film, but who is truly fast enough to outrace the strongarm of capitalism.

Ford V Ferrari (Le Mans 66 in the UK) is in cinemas now


by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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