Monday, December 9, 2019

Ford v Ferrari: A Review


I freely admit that auto-racing has never held any appeal for me, though well-made films involving auto-racing have. Senna remains one of the best documentaries I have seen; now, Ford v. Ferrari, the tale of two figuratively driven men aiming to achieve greatness, is also one of the best films of the year.

The Ford Motor Company, suffering a major slump in sales, decides somewhat reluctantly to jump into the strategy of putting a Ford at the prestigious Le Mans race. The first idea is to do this via buying the Ferrari Company, but wily Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) is for once outwitted by a wilier Ferrari President Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone).

Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is enraged when he hears how Ferrari belittled him, so he orders all-out war. Iacocca recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American to win at Le Mans who was forced to retire due to health reasons and is now a car designer. Shelby knows there's only one driver who can take them all the way: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British driver and World War II veteran struggling through hard times in California.

Miles is also very passionate, figuratively firing on all cylinders, unafraid to speak his mind when not showing signs that he's out of said mind. His blunt manner draws the ire of Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who is always looking out for Ford's image. They engage in a cold war with both Iacocca and Shelby attempting to work with, around and against the others when needed.

After a lot of struggles with the Ford design and a failed effort at one Le Mans race that had neither Shelby or Miles thanks to Beebe, Shelby and Miles finally get their chance at the 1966 race. It's a fierce fight to see who ultimate wins both the race and the competition. Even after the race is over, the victors do not get a true victory and one does not live long afterwards, but at least dies with the knowledge that it could be done.

Image result for ford vs ferrariOne aspect of Ford v Ferrari that troubled me is the length of the film; with a two-and-a-half hour running time I wondered whether the film would be longer than perhaps it should be. Fortunately, while I thought perhaps some parts could have been trimmed or cut such as the Ferrari negotiations, on the whole Ford v Ferrari moved exceptionally well.

Director James Mangold did exceptionally well in having the performances all be top-notch. At the center of the performances is Bale's as the wiry, straightforward Ken Miles. From his first scene we see Miles as supremely confident not out of arrogance but out of self-assurance. It's an incredible feat to make someone as perhaps slightly bonkers as Miles be so appealing, but Bale managed it with great skill.

The script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller gave Bale a great role as Miles. He did well as this passionate driver, but those small moments he had with Noah Jupe as his son Peter or Caitriona Balfe as his wife Molly we saw a different side to both Miles and Bale. The scene where Ken guides Peter through the Le Mans race not only works as crafty info dump but also shows Ken as a genuinely loving father. His genuine panic at Molly's erratic driving to force him to talk reveal not just that he was not a risk-taker but a skilled driver. It also shows that for Miles, Molly and Peter were what mattered.

As a side note, I do not understand any controversy over the lack of female roles. This is a story about men, true, but Balfe had a major role as Molly, who accepted Ken for who he was and understood that men could be incredibly competitive and foolish. The scene where she puts out a chair to watch Ken and Carroll literally fight it out was not only amusing, but revealed that she was much smarter than the men. Balfe and Jupe did exceptional work in the film.

Image result for ford vs ferrari
Damon struggled with whatever accent he was attempting to channel and wish he hadn't tried, but his Shelby too was quite good. He had a less showy role than Bale as the mediator who had to drive a fine line between what Ford wanted and what he knew to be right, but he managed to keep that balance well.

Surprisingly, for the praise Bale and Damon have received, I think there are some unsung heroes. Jon Bernthal's Lee Iacocca was an exceptionally sharp performance, making him a cagey figure who also was doing his own balancing act. Granted, the idea of an attractive Lee Iacocca seems pretty outlandish for those who remember him as an old, slightly pudgy Chrysler pitchman, but Bernthal gave Iacocca a smooth and shrewd manner.

Josh Lucas reminds us that he is capable of good acting as Beebe, the closest thing Ford v Ferrari has to a genuine villain. Beebe represents all those men with small minds in positions of great power. He is petty and vindictive, forever currying favor at "court" when his first and last objective is self-preservation. From his stubbornness in keeping Ken Miles out merely because Miles rubbed him the wrong way to coming up with an idiotic idea of a "photo finish" to add some kind of oddball publicity, Beebe is the embodiment of the small minds of petty executives.

Workhorse actor Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, Shelby's second-in-command, showcases how good he is. I genuinely cannot think of a bad performance McKinnon has given whenever I have seen him on film or television.

Ford v Ferrari seems to slow down once the big race is over, taking something of a slow lap to some conclusions and closure. I genuinely wondered if the film could not have concluded in another way. That on the whole is a minor quibble. Ford v Ferrari is not just a tale of competing corporations. It's about modern-day gladiators, men who are driven to excel and who have a passion for what they do, and most of all a passion to win.


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