Directed by: James Mangold
Premise: Based on true events. The Ford Motor Company recruits automotive engineer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles (Matt Damon and Christian Bale) to build the Ford GT40 and compete in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race with the goal of beating the Ferrari racing team.
What Works: Ford v Ferrari is at its core a sports film. This movie adheres to the format found in pictures like Miracle and Moneyball in which an underdog challenges the conventions of the game and takes a run at the reigning champion. In this case, an engineer and a driver take the job of building a new racecar that can outrun the longtime champion of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. But sports films, especially of this type, are not so much about the final match as they are about the hard work of training and the camaraderie between teammates. That’s where Ford v Ferrari succeeds. The story is built around the relationship between Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, respectively. They come across as guys who have known each other for a long time and the two actors have a likable rapport with Damon as the straight man and Bale as the eccentric firebrand. Ford v Ferrari is a masculine film but not in a way that is stupid or obnoxious; it’s a story that takes place in a male dominated field with a lot of emphasis on male relationships, especially between fathers and sons, but the movie is about the joy these men take in their shared passion for automotive excellence. The racing action of Ford v Ferrari is well done. The driving sequences capture the speed and danger of racing but the action remains coherent. Ford v Ferrari takes place in the mid-1960s and the movie feels authentically of its period. The costumes and sets have the look of their time and appear appropriately weathered and lived-in.
What Doesn’t: Ford v Ferrari would have been more accurately titled Ford v His Employees. There is little direct conflict between Ford and Ferrari or their racing teams. Instead, most of the conflict of Ford v Ferrari occurs between blue collar workers Shelby and Miles and the white collar suits who run the Ford Motor Company, in particular Ford Senior Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas); the story pits the creative thinkers of Ford’s racing team against the company’s rigid hierarchy. That’s a fine premise for the story and it’s well told but the drama of the Le Mans race is handicapped. Without ongoing competition between the teams, the story doesn’t escalate to its climax and the race lacks gravitas. The drama also suffers because Ford v Ferrari rarely provides an impression that the Ford team might lose. The outcome of the race is never in serious question but the film’s focus on the internal struggle between Ford’s executives and employees is what is really at issue.
Bottom Line: Ford v Ferrari is a well told story of human ingenuity and mechanical excellence. Its title is misleading but Ford v Ferrari is a bit more complex than that; it’s a story about the pursuit of greatness within a corporate structure and the push and pull between humanity and hierarchy.
Episode: #777 (November 24, 2019)