Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Dear Oscar Film Journal, 

It is time for me to write in you again.



Today's film is one of last year's Best Picture nominees, the historical car racing drama Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and directed by James Mangold.  FvF chronicles the saga of a heated rivalry between two egomaniacs, one a true artist in the realm of automobile design, the other a journeyman whose business philosophy is about quantity at all costs until sales begin to slump.  Henry Ford II, grandson of the company's legendary founder, desperate for new ideas, gets talked into buying out the bankrupt Ferrari, but its owner Enzo Ferrari instead sells to Fiat and hurls insults at Ford via the aborted deal's broker, Lee Iacocca.  Ford is so enraged he vows to design a race car that can break Ferrari's winning streak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans annual race.  This fit of hubris sets the film's story in motion, as its two main characters, former racer Carroll Shelby and current track wiz Ken Miles are assigned to the case.  Shelby (Matt Damon, channeling Tommy Lee Jones's down-home frankness) owns a car design company and oversees the project, falling back on his raw salesmanship and chutzpah to up-manage the corporate swine above him.  Ken Miles is an uncompromising expert racer and mechanic seemingly possessing of a symbiosis with cars; he can innately feel when to speed up, when to shift gears, when to lay off, etc.  His lack of people skills however are a turnoff for Ford's top brass, and the company's senior VP Leo Beebe (a smarmy-as-ever Josh Lucas) is always maneuvering to get him ousted from the team.  But Shelby goes to bat for Miles, who proves his virtuosity at the 24 Hours of Daytona with a stunning come-from-behind win.  All roads lead to Le Mans, and the epic showdown between the two auto titans.
Ford v Ferrari, amid its scenes of board room politics and thrilling racing sequences (As someone who doesn't watch auto racing ever, I was startled by how exhilarated I found myself), does something pretty remarkable.  It makes us root for two regular guys doing the bidding of a roomful of corporate assholes.  Ford II is presented early as more or less the villain in the story, flanked by one forward-thinking exec (Iacocca) and one opportunistic yes-man (Beebe).  And yet once Shelby and Miles are involved, we actually root for Ford to win.  It's a testament to Mangold's storytelling, the script by Jez & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, and most of all to the two lead performances.  Damon as Shelby conveys his usual cleverness mixed with good ol' boy plainspeak, while Bale shines as always, bringing Miles to life as a struggling family man who alternately views his gifts as his purpose in life and a pipedream keeping him from providing for his wife and son.  As a guy who suffers from social awkwardness myself, I could identify completely with Miles' inability to fit in with the Ford bigwigs' vision of a star driver.  

I knew nothing about the historical events of this story going in, and I think that actually helped me enjoy the film more, contrary to how this sort of thing usually works.  Not knowing how the race turned out, or whether Miles would get the recognition and opportunities he deserved, helped me invest emotionally in the story.  If you're unfamiliar with the events of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, I'd recommend going into this film cold.  Regardless though, Ford v Ferrari is a quite compelling human interest story punctuated with expertly filmed, kinetic, on-the-ground racing scenes that will raise your pulse.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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