I've seen a lot of car movies, as a self-professed car nut. As such I judge them harshly, and immediately dismiss entries that don't provide enough reason to care about what is more important than the car: the driver. Think of the Fast and Furious and Transformers franchise. If you care about the driver, and the driver cares about the car, you care about the car. The car is a tool, an extension of the hero's body, and gains provenance with the audience when it helps the hero on their personal journey. Movies that come to mind that do this effectively include Gone in 60 Seconds, Bullitt, Need For Speed, The Italian Job, Batman Begins, and The Bourne Identity. Some of the James Bond movies do it well, like Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loves Me, The Living Daylights, and SkyFall, but many do not because of the lack of character arc in the story. We cannot forget about perhaps the greatest car movie of all time, Back to the Future. The shining example of how to make the car a proper star.
And now enters a film by James Mangold and starring talented actors Matt Damon and Christian Bale called Ford v. Ferrari. My arms crossed, and expectations lowered, I was ready to be disappointed. Although I love Mangold as a director, somehow I assumed there would be a Michael Bay approach to the movie, putting more emphasis on car action sequences than the characters. To my surprise, not only was I dead wrong, but the film became one of the best car movies I had ever seen.
Thinking back, I should have known better. Unlike many car action oriented movies, this one is based on a true story, and fact-based dramas tend to take themselves more seriously. It is sort of a shared biopic between legendary sports car designer Carroll Shelby and race car driver Ken Miles. The movie focuses on their efforts to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, a story I'm well aware of (like I said, bonafide car nut). And Mangold is an Oscar winning filmmaker collaborating with Oscar winning people such as Damon and Bale.
And boy do their talents shine in this movie. The driving engine of the story, if you will, is the loving but at times clashing relationship between Shelby and Miles, portrayed brilliantly by Damon and Bale in a manner that in my opinion is more entertaining and engaging than the dynamic duo of DiCaprio and Pitt in Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood. Damon and Bale have different styles of acting, but both arrive at the same place: creating a character that faces disappointment in the search for victory.
Shelby has to come to terms with the disappointment of having to quit his racing career due to heart problems, and creating a winning team at Le Mans is his way of proving to himself he's still a winner. Miles is desperate not to disappoint himself because unlike Shelby, he's never had a shot at winning at a big race. This is due to his abrasive personality, despite an amazing talent on the race track. On top of this, Miles desperately doesn't want to disappoint his wife and son, who support him fervently in his dream. Both characters have their own obstacles in search of escaping disappointment, with Shelby dealing with the suits at Ford and Miles dealing with problems of the car in the race as they present themselves, and the trial of besting the other race car drivers. Their individual struggles intersect in the mutual desire to win at Le Mans, resulting in a brotherhood and mutual love for each other that feels genuine and earned.
Henry Ford II, played by a very effective Tracy Letts, reveals in a quick but moving scene why he wants to win at Le Mans. After Shelby takes Ford on a whirlwind nauseating ride with the new race car they have engineered, Ford breaks into tears. Not so much because of the physically jarring experience of being jostled around at breakneck speed, but because of what the car means to his family name. "I had no idea. If only my dad were alive to see this," he tells Shelby. Damon, in that scene, responds with wet eyes. The character Ford reveals how much he doesn't want to disappoint his family legacy. In fact, the entire endeavor started with an insult from Ferrari, stating, "You're only Henry Ford the second, you'll never be Henry Ford." And in an earlier scene, Ford compares himself to his legendary grandfather in a speech to Ford factory workers concerning his disappointment in current company sales.
Cars represent man's desire to chase a dream. Whether it be designing the fastest car, or driving cars the fastest. And despite all the obstacles that may get in man's way, the biggest one is always himself. But with perseverance and the help of others, this obstacle can too be overcome. Ford v. Ferrari manages to get to the heart of this message with deceptive ease and supreme confidence. The film's absolutely gorgeous cinematography and direction capture some of the most amazing car sequences ever put to the big screen. A surprising but believable behind the scenes factoid is that Mangold and the cast are not car nuts at all, and were simply moved to tell the story of the characters. This is why the movie works so well, because they understood the car as supporting the story rather than the other way around.
Ford v. Ferrari is an absolute winner, with memorable performances from its cast, and my favorite Mangold picture thus far. For me, it is one of the best of the year, and as far as car movies go, one of the best ever made, and miles away from a disappointment.