2010s, Action-Adventure, Biopic, Sports

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

aka Le Mans ‘66

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Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

By Roderick Heath

Rain, speed, dark: the opening scenes of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari offer a driver’s-eye-view of racing on the famous Le Mans circuit at its most treacherous, deep in the night where the world loses all texture but the consequences of lapsed attention can be deadly. This proves to be a dream-distorted memory of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), winner of the race in 1959 who learns he has to quit racing as he’s developed a heart condition. Ford v Ferrari casts its mind back to the heady days of 1960s motor racing, a time when the sport was on the cusp of new technological wonders but was still leaning heavily on the eyes, minds, guts, and nerves of its committed builders and drivers. The title frames the story as one of clashing brand names, but the more vital battle here is between the dynamic grunts in the cockpits, pit lanes, and factory floors, and fatuous executives engaged in territorial pissing.

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The story grows out of an attempt at corporate rebranding, as young sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tries to turn around a buying slump for Ford as it trundles along under the glum stewardship of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Hoping to imbue the Ford marque with new, hip appeal, Iacocca talks the boss in trying to buy the great Italian car manufacturer Ferrari. That company has been dominating racing with its brilliant, carefully fashioned cars for several years, but has run out of money. Iacocca travels to Italy to arrange the purchase with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), only to be contemptuously seen off after Ferrari uses the Ford offer to leverage a buy-out from Fiat instead. When Iacocca reports Enzo’s barbed and personal insults, emphasising that the boss is just a feckless inheritor and maker of ugly, boring cars, Ford II decides to get revenge in a fitting but arduous manner, in setting up his own racing division.

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Iacocca hires Shelby, who has set up a fledgling car design enterprise, to attach his concern to Ford with the aim of producing a champion car. Shelby fixes on Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an eccentric and often truculent British-born racer with a knack for winning but no head for business or public relations, as a most fitting collaborator and driver. It’s an uneasy partnership: Miles takes such exception to Shelby’s criticism that he tosses a spanner at him, shattering his own car’s windscreen instead, turning off some Porsche bigwigs who were interested in hiring Miles as a test driver. Miles, who lives with his wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), has recently had his garage taken from him for unpaid taxes, but still hesitates at Shelby’s offer because of his uncompromising streak. That streak, once he does sign on, quickly rubs another Ford exec, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the wrong way as he sees through the marketing glitz around the Mustang. Beebe nixes Shelby’s intention to have Miles drive at Le Mans in 1965, which proves to be a good thing as the first Ford cars entered prove glitch-prone if promisingly fast. Shelby has to repeatedly convince Ford II to let him run the show as he sees fit, and eventually Miles proves his mettle by winning at Daytona, setting up an epic clash Le Mans in 1966.

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Ford v Ferrari is a potent example of an endangered breed in contemporary mainstream cinema, a breed that used to be pretty commonplace: an ambitious, well-produced entertainment taking on a story rooted in fact, armed with all the technical might and storytelling savvy Hollywood has to offer. One justification for the all-consuming vortex that is contemporary franchise cinema is that it helps directors who sign on for a spell get other, more risky and personal projects financed. Ford v Ferrari represents the payoff for James Mangold after slogging his way through two vehicles for the Marvel comic book character Wolverine. A lot of people liked those films but they bored me silly, for they demonstrated Mangold had no affinity for the fantastic genres as he tried valiantly to skew them towards his native turf of melodrama driven by strident, conflicted characters, but he could never quite contend with how such efforts foiled the best qualities of each mode. Ford v Ferrari is much more a work in Mangold’s wheelhouse, a tale of striving and grounded struggle for protagonists whose objects of aspiration promise release from, and intensify the pain of, their private hells.

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It’s a touch surprising that Mangold, who debuted with a modest entry in the ‘90s indie film stakes, Heavy (1995), has proven to be one of current Hollywood’s most dextrous artificers, one who’s gone to a lot of effort to become a plain master of his craft on a technical level. Ford v Ferrari is beautifully crafted, with a palpable sense of physical context. Mangold’s second outing, Copland (1997), was a crime tale inflated well beyond its rather modest storyline by being overloaded with stars and production values when Miramax decided to try and make it a major award contender, resulting in a bruising flop, but Mangold persisted and rebounded with the slick and popular drama Girl, Interrupted (1999) and the psychothriller Identity (2003), a film that amusingly rendered Mangold’s interest in fractured personalities trying to piece themselves back together in gleefully literal and schlock-fun manner. His 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, whilst inevitably reducing the scope of Cash’s achievements, evinced Mangold’s cunning talent for digging out the raw nerve of a strong, essential storyline, in a manner that reproduced Cash’s own propensity for mythic-moralistic yarn-spinning, style and subject uniquely well-aligned.

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The emphasis in Ford v Ferrari on antagonistic personalities who eventually realise a hair too late they’re friends also recalls Mangold’s flavourful if lumpy remake of the canonical Western suspenser 3:10 From Yuma (2007). Ford v Ferrari reproduces some of the best qualities of Mangold’s work on Walk The Line, particularly Mangold’s feeling for period detail and sensibility, and gift for being attentive to his actors without devolving into shaggy indulgence. Ford v Ferrari might have grown as a project out of Michael Mann’s long-frustrated intention to make a biopic about Enzo Ferrari, as Mann was a producer here. The initial precepts of Ford v Ferrari, from its title on down, describe a clash between European and American sensibilities and business methods, and propelled, at least initially, by the potent emotions lurking behind the pudgy, pale faces of suit-clad industrialists. The script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, tiptoes around the more disturbing political associations of both companies, Ford as founded by a rabid anti-Semite and Ferrari by a former Fascist collaborator, but it retains a surprisingly attentive engagement with its various characters, and companies, as social phenomena.

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Ford II encourages Shelby to get to work by pointing out the building where the company built bombers during the war and instructing him to treat their venture the same way, as a war of worlds. In our peculiar epoch, such a story could be taken as a metaphor offered in dogged celebration of an Anglo-American partnership, for all its fraternal fractiousness, sticking it to snooty Europeans, in line with some political desires amidst Britain’s ongoing divorce from the EU. But as the film unfolds it disowns such readings, or at least complicates them. Shelby presents himself as the archetypal American individualist, half-cowboy, half-artisan, a man who once flew the bombers Ford built and who gives speeches wearing a Stetson. Miles, a man who’s left one country for another, is the battered progeny of an age, a war hero who nonetheless acts in a way that makes Beebe describe him as a beatnik, and whose intense, angular physicality on top of his unstable behaviour suggests he may be suffering from lingering PTSD, even if he manages most of the time to expend his angst in racing. His wife’s well-used to his mercurial strangeness and understands too well his particular addictions because she shares them to a degree, terrifying her husband as she drives the family wagon at speed whilst chewing him out for being evasive over his dealings with Shelby. His evasiveness is rooted in his deep-set ambivalence for the idea of becoming a company man, a deal with the devil he knows well will sooner or later cost him some big lump of pride.

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Mangold’s visual shorthand captures contrasting aesthetics as rooted in cultural gaps, Ferrari having his breakfast in the workshop of his factory in leafy old world surrounds that mimic the old padrone overseeing his villa’s business, versus Ford II ensconced high in his shiny tower, a man who almost accidentally embodies a specific moment in human history trying to work out the biggest trick in business, how to transcend that moment: can the great modernist project survive its own all-consuming will? Ford II makes clear to his workforce, both on the factory floor and in his executive ranks, the ultimate cost of failures of imagination and will, when he shuts down the assembly line in mid-flow and asks his employees to imagine that as a permanent state of affairs. “James Bond’s a degenerate,” he comments when Iacocca tries to use the fictional hero as the perfect example of a style icon for a new generation as a fantasy of gone-wild thrill-seeking and licentiousness, sharply contrasting the Ford imprimatur’s self-perception as a pillar of parochial American values. Enzo is offered the personification of a certain European ideal of the owner-manager who protects his brand and his personal aura with the integrity of an artist. Ford II speaks another kind of language, flying in and out of race events in a helicopter, stirring the mockery of the Italians but also stating to the world at large he’s a being from a vastly different stratum of business, one who exhibits his imperial, dynastic might in new ways.

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Letts, who’s also of course a playwright, beautifully nails the key moment of the drama when Ford II absorbs the import of Ferrari’s insults, the look of stirred anger blending with a shade of blank despair, the one weak spot in his armour expertly located and pierced. But it’s telling that even as Ford v Ferrari gives unexpected insight into what makes a man like Ford II tick, it carefully metes that empathy. Mangold takes unseemly delight in a sequence where Shelby takes Ford II out for a ride in his new racecar only to leave the great industrialist weeping in shock and fear, newly respectful of the abilities of people who can work at such extremes. This gives way quickly to a more familiar narrative pitch, concentrating on Shelby and Miles as the men who do the real work, building and wielding formidable hunks of technology, in tension with an increasingly corporatized enterprise. By the last act the games of plutocratic dick-measuring have given way instead to the efforts of risk-taking inventors and performers. It doesn’t take much critical squinting to see Ford v Ferrari as Mangold’s report on his experience as a director working for big studios on packaged product, arguing his belief that in the end even the most valuable property has to be turned over to creative people whose ways and means are alien and fear-inducing to boardroom types.

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Bale plays a version of Miles, who was generally known as a polite customer in real life but here is portrayed as a prickly misfit brilliant at his job but hampered by a volcanic temper that he almost seems to unleash with calculation just to see how people will react to it. This is Bale plainly offering rather a variation on his own public persona, star performer as a being who must walk the existential line. But this also aids Mangold’s conflating purpose, as if arguing the car/movie industry needs such personalities to make things happen, Miles as unruly but dynamic movie star and Shelby as visionary director. Bale’s a natural-born scene stealer, but Damon, asked to play the more grounded straight man, gives one of his most effective performances, sharpening his drawl to a point in moments like when he has to muster an effective argument for Ford II to keep the racing team going. Shelby and Miles’ working relationship reaches a crisis point when he has to bypass Miles in the ’65 Le Mans, a benching Miles takes with surprising calm and settles for listening to it on the radio whilst working on a car (in reality he competed in the race along with Bruce McLaren in a Ford only to retire with gearbox trouble, but hell, this is the movies). When Shelby begs Miles to work with him again, Miles punches him in the face, overture to a John Ford-esque moment of manly expiation of friendly contention through fisticuffs. The following year, Miles wins both Daytona and the Sebring 12 hour race, and goes into Le Mans on a red-hot streak, for the ultimate duel with Ferrari’s team.

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Car racing movies have a long if not always honoured pedigree in movies, reaching back to Howard Hawks films like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Red Line 7000 (1965) and extending through the likes of James Goldman’s Winning (1969), Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990), Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001), and Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). There are even distinct narrative affinities between Ford v Ferrari and Ben-Hur (1959) in the theme of a man with a race-winner looking for the right driver to prove both a personal and cultural point. The two best films on car racing to date are John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) and Lee H. Katzin’s Le Mans (1971), both of which were hefty hunks of pricey filmmaking but expressive and unusual in their filmmaking and muted in their emotional palettes, avoiding the triumphalism we now more squarely associate with such films: they came out of a day when a sports movie could also be a study in alienation and disaffection. But the racer subgenre very often concentrates on characters who remain in some fashion enigmas to themselves and those close to them, trying to understand what pushes them out to such extremes of life and death, cutting them off from the ordinary world.

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Another telling inequality between Frankenheimer and Katzin’s films, products of a more cinematically adventurous age, and Mangold’s is that the older films aimed to offer almost poeticised evocations of speed and motion, like the awesome depiction of a car crash in fragmented visions and distorted time perception in Le Mans. Whereas Ford v Ferrari is, like many contemporary films, obsessed with nailing down a specific storytelling arc, an approach that does at least facilitate Mangold’s preoccupation with characters trying to understand themselves. Mangold’s visuals have real beauty that sometimes grazes the poetic in their way, but they’re thoroughly contoured into straightforward function. Mangold’s sharp yet textured images, his use of rich colours and light come in frames rendered with a clear, illustrative force, are one of the pleasures of his best films: his filmic approach is both muscular in a contemporary fashion but also quite classical and unmannered. The racing sequences here are some of the best ever staged, with Mangold’s framings expertly tethered to lines of linear motion, the soundtrack replete with the sonorous thunder of a well-tuned muscle engine at full throttle, cars moving at great speed as rivals and friends crash and hunks of wreckage tumble about your ears.

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The brilliant climactic recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race depicts with immediate verve and intensity the experience of driving a car pell-mell through thickets of rivals amidst flurrying rain and dark, frames awash with gushing spray and red taillight glow and boiling flame, a realm where Miles is most perfectly himself, delivered from a world of compromise and pettiness, brushing the edges of the sublime state he believes resides in the zone above 7000 rpm. But the whole film is wrapped in a lush gloss apparent even in interpersonal moments as when Ken talks with his son whilst sitting on a stretch of LA airport tarmac the team likes to use for practice runs, transformed into an amphitheatre of technological grunt amidst the glowing mid-century twilight. Mangold uses James Burton’s instrumental cover of “Polk Salad Annie” as a recurring leitmotif on the soundtrack, an instant dash of distilled retro Americana that also communicates the sheer fidgety urge to defy a limit and the love of rolling velocity encoded in its nervously thrumming rhythm. Ford v Ferrari actually digs into the business of making a winner as well as noting the forces that often get in the way of making a good movie. I mean, car.

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There’s a fine sense of detail in the sequences depicting the process of creating such a car, like coating supermodern machines in bits of flapping wool to analyse wind dynamics, as Shelby, Miles, and the Ford brains steadily winnow what they learn to arrive at the GT40, a car with a huge bundle of horsepower jammed into the rear of the car, and coming up with novel notions like a completely replaceable braking system when Miles almost gets wiped out as the car’s braking system locks up during an endurance test. What hampers Ford v Ferrari is its habits of narrowing its focus down to some stock-standard conflicts and refrains. Lucas is again stuck playing the kind of snooty establishment antagonist he embodied in A Beautiful Mind (2002), aggravating through the pinewood texture of his voice. The battles with the Ford hierarchy and Beebe in particular have roots in fact but it’s an aspect, along with the constant swaying between Miles’ work and his home life, that starts to interfere with the pace of the film. And yet the conventionalities are frustrating but serve a function that doesn’t quite become clear until the end.

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The emphasis on the conflict between the racers and the executives proves eventually to have a different cumulative meaning than is usual, and the refrains to Lee’s mostly happy home life, often seem superfluous despite Balfe’s terrific performance as Lee’s stalwart lady, but it ultimately becomes clear that the Miles’ story is one of how what makes us love some people is also what we know well might take them from us some day. Moreover, the climactic race, which has the lustre of folklore amongst race fans for understandable reason, presents a fascinating dramatic situation where character and machinery both are tested. What’s ultimately most interesting about Ford v Ferrari is the degree to which it’s not quite a classic crowd-pleaser, becoming rather a story of heroes trying to identify their deepest, truest yardsticks for success rather than those imposed by worldly expectations. Branded legend is invoked only to force the audience to identify with men who eventually realise their talents and abilities always come second to the interest of those whose business it is selling a product. Enzo Ferrari’s gesture of respect is ultimately tipped to the racers, not Ford II: European auteur gives respect to American studio hand, for there is no difference when the dream is the same and achieved superlatively. The genius of Shelby’s team and Miles’ ability are ultimately subordinated to this interest, as Beebe talks Ford II into arranging the three Ford cars in the race to cross the line together.

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It’s a chance for a perfect publicity photo that however cheats Miles of his win, as McLaren (Benjamin Rigby) is declared the winner for a technicality through backstage chicanery. The irony however is that Miles has already fulfilled his own standard of achievement, setting incredible lap records with ferocious driving, and defeating both Ferraris in duels. Finally he decides to obey the company decision as he finds he’s outrun the need to win alone. The cruellest punchline lies in wait a little further down the road, as Miles dies as a car he’s testing careens off a desert test track, the old braking problem still a lurking imp ready to upturn all faiths of men. Shelby gives the spanner Miles tossed at him to young Peter, and settles in his car for a fit of grief as he wolfs down his heart medication. A surprisingly ambivalent ending for such a movie, leaving the question as to whether all this defiant business is actually worth anything in the face of the human wreckage left in its wake. But the way Shelby drives off confirms he still has the fire in the blood, perhaps an irreducible component of the human condition that burns itself out in different people in different ways — the sense that life is not life unless it’s known at the very limit. Ford v Ferrari certainly doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel. But it is the the sort of film that gives popular moviemaking a good name.

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