Watched Feb. 11th, 2020
Director – James Mangold
Starring – Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas
I do not like race cars. I don’t like NASCAR, I’ve never sat through an entire race of any length, and I’ve never, even for a minute, desired to be a racecar driver. If Ford v Ferrari had starred an anonymous group without the leadership of a solid bet like Mangold, I would’ve had next to zero interest. With Bale and Damon, it became a must-see.
On the acting pyramid, Bale and Damon sit comfortably on the top level; both masters of the craft at the peak of their powers. On the one hand, Christian Bale went from weight gain, prosthetics, and a spot on vocal impression of a 60-year-old American in Vice to the skinny, desperate, angry Brit Ken Miles. Damon, with a few cameos in between, was a nervous, average-Joe suburbian in Suburbicon and turned that into the cocky, sure-of-himself, genius-cowboy Carroll Shelby. They turn in performances worthy of their talents. Damon provides a sense of point-of-view but Bale is the hero. Their relationship makes the story interesting.
Multiple conflicts give the film shape. The surface, titular contest between the car manufacturers is a historical event and the resolution of it can be found on google. Despite that issue, a common one for historical films, Mangold sets it up with plenty of tension and development. A racing fan might even get excited about it. The more interesting conflicts are between Shelby’s small shoe-string company and the titanic corporate machine of Ford, and between Ken Miles and perfection.
The David-Goliath between Shelby and Ford was a little odd because even this non-motorhead viewer was well aware of Shelby’s name and influence in the automotive world. However, several speeches from Henry Ford III established effectively the corporate giant’s status in American and global economics. There’s something delightfully American about both companies. Ford exudes dominance; a well-oiled machine with the desire and capacity to push around whoever and whatever is in its way. Shelby represents rebellion; an upstart little-guy who will not be pushed around because of his genius, creativity, and style.
The most interesting and ultimately most important struggle was between Ken and his perfect lap. Shelby gives a little speech to the media announcing his partnership with Ford and their intentions to enter Le Mans. He quotes the oft-heard truism that if a man finds a job he’s born to do he doesn’t work a day in his life but then adds a more direct address to his friend and driver Ken Miles, “But there’s a few who find something that they have to do.”
Ken’s drive to drive drives him to drive like nobody else could drive. He finds pleasure in racing but more significantly and more satisfyingly he finds purpose. The moments he shares that purpose with his son are beautifully intertwined in the story and give the arc of his character poignancy. The poetry of his death on a racetrack solidifies the image of a man who had to race. It was his very essence.
Car nuts and film tech gurus gush over the sense of reality in the races. I confess to not finding them particularly awe-inspiring or impressive. Nonetheless, I can imagine the sounds and visuals would be quite immersive in the right context (in a theater or IMAX as opposed to my living room). The soundtrack is nice but didn’t leave me humming or looking to listen to it afterward. No obvious deficiencies marred the film in any of these areas.