7/10 There’s a clear intent behind Ford v Ferrari that’s successfully born out. The intent to evoke the type of movie you’d find channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon, its 152-minute runtime expanded to fill a three or four hour window, left on in the background while you stare without seeing and quietly dread the next morning.
It’s that type of movie, and it’s made for the type of person who thinks that’s still a normal way to consume movies.
Ford v Ferrari, titled Le Mans ’66 for international release, goes through a mostly fictionalized version of the Ford Motor Company’s dramatic entry onto the international racing scene, first by attempting to buy Ferrari in 1963, then by beating them at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest and most prestigious endurance race. To do this, Ford hires car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), one of only three Americans to win the race at the time, who was forced into early retirement because of a heart condition, and he brings in his chief partner, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Known for his temper and hatred of top-down organization, Miles has a rocky relationship with the bureaucrats at Ford.
The film is a longform demonstration of the evils of corporatism — those bureaucrats and their computers, they don’t know how to build a car! They don’t even care, they just want to make sure they get their share of the credit. The Ford GT was a real American car, and it could only have been built by real American men, modern cowboys who leap without looking, mavericks with scotch tape and a ball of wool who aren’t afraid to act without their bosses’ approval!
That’s all horseshit. Portrayed as a scrappy ragtag team of gearheads, Shelby and Miles had been working together designing racecars for several years, and Ford effectively outsourced the job to them along with several other contractors, all of whom are omitted for the sake of this individual v collectivism conflict that seems to have been mostly made-up. Miles, portrayed as hot-headed to the point that he couldn’t ever fit into a corporation, seems to have been well-liked by all.
There’s an ethic to biopics that Ford v Ferrari gets very wrong. The best biographical films don’t just stick to the facts of what made their subject famous, but they identify the core conflicts and motivations that drove them. That’s the core of any story and any character, is conflict and motivation, and you can take as much artistic license as you want as long as those conflicts and motivations ring true.
For a great example, look at Moneyball – or really anything Aaron Sorkin’s done, he’s got this down to a science. Moneyball focuses on the paradigm shift in baseball player evaluation and deployment wrought by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the early ‘00s. Manager Art Howe is portrayed as fighting him every step of the way, when in real life he was completely onboard – he’d have to be, he’s in charge of player deployment, which was core to what Beane was trying to do. The real-life Howe was rightly upset with this, but it still rings true in the movie because it demonstrates and personalizes the real tension between Beane’s strategy and traditional baseball.
Where Moneyball’s largely fictitious conflict is OK because it’s made out of a real one, Ford v Ferrari’s fictitious conflict between Miles and Ford is not OK because it’s made out of nothing at all.
Ford v Ferrari the film steeps itself in the same mythos that Ford itself does. It makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective – you think about who’s going to watch a movie about Ford as a plucky underdog against Ferrari, which is portrayed as an indomitable foe despite being near bankruptcy within the runtime, and make a movie that appeals to them, a movie about the rugged individual triumphing over the otherized collective, the perfect fantasy for the modern cowboy – if by “modern cowboy,” you mean modern shlub who can’t complain out loud about how much he hates his job.
That’s a fine story, but it doesn’t fit the truth of what happened at Le Mans ’66 at all, to the point that the film alters several facts about what did happen to fit this mythos better. You can make whatever metanarrative you want, that’s your business, but it’s a sad missed opportunity to see this transplanted onto a real story which had a real metanarrative to be siphoned out of it.
Some of it does come through. In contextual scenes, Ford v Ferrari does a remarkable job of setting up the importance of Le Mans ’66 on the world stage and to Ford Motor Company in particular – though reportedly, they could have done even more by impressing the conflict with General Motors. When questioned about his production line, which in keeping with the anti-collectivist narrative is portrayed as soulless and inept, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) looks out from his office and points out to Shelby the factories that made the B-24 Liberators that won World War II, the mass production of which built Detroit into the working man’s metropolis of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The production of the GT wasn’t about vanity, it was about making Ford mean something again, making Ford a symbol of American victory to “the first generation of teenagers in history with money.”
The film is just as evocative with its mostly fictitious conflict between Miles, Shelby and the Ford corporation. Its romance and deep Americana are palpable, and Josh Lucas steals multiple scenes as defacto villain Leo Beebe, senior executive vice president of racing with an axe to grind against Miles.
The racing itself leaves a bit to be desired. Director/producer James Mangold said he wanted to impress the endurance aspect of Le Mans, with the race taking up the last hour or so of the 152-minute film. This involved squeezing out other races that took place during this time period testing the limits of the GT.
Mangold impresses the endurance element with runtime, but doesn’t impress the actual speed and excitement of the race with camerawork. Ambitious racing shots are noticeably lacking. That’s because Ford’s victory was built not on ambitious driving but ambitious engineering, building a car that wasn’t necessarily faster, but could spend more time at speed without breaking. The shooting philosophy of the ’66 Le Mans race is meant to highlight that. The focus isn’t on the exhilaration of 200 mph driving, it’s on the small, willing differences in speed and cornering between Miles, who is pushing his vehicle to its exact limits, and the Ferrari drivers, who must choose between holding back to make sure their cars last the full 24 hours or wrecking themselves to keep up. It’s far from boring, but with the film as a whole needed to be redesigned to maximize the catharsis of it. With so much focus on the infighting within Ford and fights about whether or not Miles personally could drive, you’re primed to see him win with individual brilliancy. Instead, he wins because he’s allowed to put his foot a little further down for a little longer each lap.
It’s a drawn-out, process-oriented climax for a drawn-out, process-oriented movie, well-made, but not the type of thing you’d recommend or ever intentionally leave the channel on.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.