Framing Ford v Ferrari as a feel-good inspirational sports drama feels like bad initial footing for director James Mangold: This is the story of how the Ford Motor Company set about building a car capable of outgunning the dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 Le Mans race, a 24-hour test of automotive moxy and testicular fortitude. For those unaware of the history, it ends well for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), not quite as well for brilliant, cocksure good ol’ boy engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and in tragedy for crackerjack driver and inveterate wiseass Ken Miles (Christian Bale). The company wins bigly. The men responsible for the win don’t. What’s there to feel good about?
Well, it is intermittently a blast, particularly when Bale and Damon ham it up with each other, trading jabs and one-liners, and having childish slap fights in broad daylight as Miles’ saintly, patient wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) quietly observes. But when it isn’t a blast, Ford v Ferrari is politically muddled to the point of distraction.
Letts plays Ford (a.k.a., “Hank the Deuce”) as a booming, bigmouth business jerk who’s desperate to live up to his dad’s legacy. When his company flounders, he demands that his workers come up with a big idea to save the brand. VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) believes that sexing up Ford’s image will lead them to prosperity, and to sex up Ford’s image, they must beat Italian race cars in Europe’s greatest race. Sex sells. Cars are sex. Europe is sex. They just need a genius designer and a deft man behind the wheel. Shelby fits the first bill, a straight-shooting Texan with years of experience to back his bravado. Miles fits the second, but if Shelby is direct and unapologetic, Miles is blunt enough to make a 50-pound sledgehammer blush. He’s a troublemaker. Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) knows it.
Ford v Ferrari has enough on its plate without Lucas twirling his oily mustache at Miles. There’s that pack of Italians twirling their oily mustaches, led by Enzo Ferrari himself (Remo Girone), presented as a one-dimensional villain with a chip on his shoulder over all things American. The movie leans into the notion of Le Mans ’66 as a matter of cultural pride: We’re Americans, and damit we’re not going to let a bunch of “greasy wops” push us around. (Slurs are Ford’s language of choice for addressing his opponents, because how dare Ferrari point out Ford’s failures and shortcomings as a white American male?) There’s more at stake than Ford v Ferrari bothers exploring, relying instead on stereotyping and unflattering ethnic coding to give audiences a reason to root for Ford, even though they’re really supposed to be rooting for Miles and Shelby. Corporate entities make bad protagonists. Bale and Damon’s characters are easy to rally behind not simply because they’re wonderful together but because they’re the ones actually doing the work.
The further the film gets away from Ford and Ferrari and lets its focus drift to the folks responsible for scoring the former a “W,” the better off it is. Mangold directs his leading men to screwball-level antics; even when they’re trying to connect on emotional levels, they can’t help provoking smiles through sheer electric charm. Racing may or may not be your cup of motor oil, but Ford v Ferrari demands zero racing fluency from its audience. Everything runs through Bale and Damon. Hang onto their performances, and all the rest will follow.
Ford v Ferrari doesn’t try to be contemporary, but there’s a pervasive sense of national superiority that nearly spoils all that makes the movie worth watching in the first place. Mangold, the Butterworths and Keller likely didn’t intend to invoke MAGA dogma, but there’s unfortunate MAGA subtext woven through their film’s fabric nonetheless: We’re number one, and those fancy-pants Europeans are no-talent scoundrels in need of an industrial hiding. Watching Ford and his bigwigs bask in Miles’ and Shelby’s triumphs gradually deemphasizes Bale’s relationship to Damon within the movie’s framework. As a result, Ford v Ferrari rockets across the finish line using a flawed blueprint—there’s fun to be had, but it’s all in service to the people who least deserve recognition.
Director: James Mangold
Writer: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon, Remo Girone
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.