“Ford v Ferrari”: The Little Best Picture Nominee That Could

Ford v Ferrari!

Stars of the hot new motion picture White Men Can’t Brake.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: in a personal record, I saw eight of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture before they were announced on January 13th:

…which brings us to the ninth and final nominee, Ford v Ferrari — director James Mangold’s salute to auto racing pioneers and big middle finger to self-absorbed corporate executives who think they know best. Brought to you by Twentieth Century Fox, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company.

(Fox greenlit this on purpose as a parable of how their 2019 went, didn’t they?)

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in the 1960s, eminent racecar driver and pioneering designer Enzo Ferrari walked out on a proposed takeover of his operations by the Ford Motor Company, who were hoping to class up their stodgy portfolio by actually making a good-looking vehicle that could cruise above 40 mph without parts falling off, maybe even a car that would interest the coveted males-under-65 demographic. After Ferrari said very mean things on his way out the door, Ford vowed the worst revenge one can inflict upon a champion racer: they would beat him at races. They dedicated all available resources to their new objective of breaking Ferrari’s six-year winning streak at the 24 Hours at Le Mans, one of Europe’s most prestigious and grueling competitions. There was just one problem: this was the Ford Motor Company, whose motto at the time was “You’re Driving…a Ford? Really?”

Ford immediately gets on the phone with Matt Damon, only to be discouraged when he realizes Damon isn’t playing Jason Bourne and refuses to assassinate Ferrari. Damon is instead playing Carroll Shelby, up to that point one of the very few Americans ever to win at Le Mans. The native Texan retired from active racing after his ’59 Le Mans victory due to a heart condition, but he never got out of the game. He owned his own racing team, and continued designing and selling cars, including upgraded versions of Britain’s own Cobra sports car. Shelby accepts the challenge, brings in his team, and prepares to give Ford his all. Their biggest obstacle: they’ll also need the Greatest Driver of All Time.

Enter Christian Bale as Ken Miles, a British WWII veteran who survived Normandy and became the Greatest Driver of All Time. Not in terms of wins, trophies, cash prizes, or reputation, but he’s the kind of guy with a virtually supernatural proficiency in his chosen profession, the sort of chap who wins hearts and movies with his unflappable confidence. He’s a hothead, a rebel, a loose cannon who doesn’t play by petty rules unless you scream the rules at him really loudly and dodge whatever heavy object he throws at you in response. He’s the best man on Shelby’s team and their best chance of taking Le Mans. Also, he’s flat broke and needs the money. But mostly he loves driving and working on cars, occasionally at the same time.

A few barriers stand between Miles, Shelby, and the French checkered flag. First they need to design the Greatest Racecar of All Time. Then there’s their worst enemy: Ford executives who think they know what’s best, whose egos write checks their brains can’t cash, who always get what they want because they’re Rich White Guys in charge, and who know auto racing about as well as they know quantum theory. The Ford brass don’t like Ken Miles with his grease-monkey sheen or his mouthy attitude or his refusal to wear business suits or the way he’s always doing whatever he wants without bowing to his new corporate overlords. Ford wants to win, but not with Miles at the wheel. Because they just don’t get it.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: As Henry Ford II, grandson of the Henry Ford, Tracy Letts (Lady Bird, Little Women) lords his legacy over the company with privileged pomposity and a smattering of bigotry…but every so often, he can be reasoned with if you appeal to his vengeful side. Jon Bernthal (The Punisher, Walking Dead) is a young Lee Iacocca, years before he took over as head of Chrysler and wrote a bestselling autobiography back in the ’80s. As the film tells it, it was Iacocca’s idea for Ford to begin courting younger, trendier drivers and to extend the company’s reach into the racing business. After the deal is done, he mostly hangs back and watches while all the most weaselly moves are perpetrated by Josh Lucas (Ang Lee’s Hulk) as Leo Beebe, a marketing guy who is by definition the worst possible executive in the universe to be in charge of what happens in the life-or-death environment of a world-class racetrack. He’s the very symbol of self-unaware Ford vanity and his bottom-line meddling pretty much ruins everything.

Meanwhile at Ken Miles’ house, Outlander star Caitriona Balfe is his Concerned Wife, but she is absolutely not there to fret about his daredevil stunts or to deliver ultimatums about quitting racing Or Else. Quite the contrary, even after the IRS has foreclosed on his meager fix-it shop, she’s less concerned with his income than she is with him being true to himself and his skill sets. No, her wrath is aroused only when he refuses to tell her about Shelby’s job offer because he thinks she’ll be mad. She wasn’t mad, but withholding the truth does enrage her, as she demonstrates in a terrific scene in which she indulges in major road rage in their old woody station wagon while he’s helpless in the passenger seat.

Their son is Noah Jupe from A Quiet Place, the center of a happy nuclear family that loves spending time together and allows for an exceedingly rare example of positive father/son bonding in a modern film.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? To my pleasant surprise, the film is emphatically not a Ford puff piece. James Mangold is not here to sell cars or tell you anything is “BUILT FORD TOUGH”. On an offensively simplistic level the whole thing is just the secret origin of the classic Ford GT40 racing car, the ultimate outcome of this sometimes tenuous collaboration between Ford and Shelby. But at its heart Ford v Ferrari is a celebration of creators, inventors, and innovators given license, funding, and trust to follow their instincts, implement their skill sets to the fullest, and make tremendous advancements that might benefit all humankind, or at least entertain some of humankind. FvF is not an all-star salute to the suits who legally own the results of their hard work. At best, Ford and Beebe are like art patrons. At the worst, they’re fickle, dishonorable swindlers pulling rank for counterproductive reasons. They want to win and prosper, and they want to stick to the old, selfish ways that nearly destroyed their company in the first place.

Our Heroes have little patience for executive games, especially not Miles. But he loves what he does whether the project his to take home or not, whether he wins races or not. It’s all the quest for what he calls “the Perfect Lap”, that rare moment in a race when the driver has left the field behind and knows they’re speeding as fast as they possibly can, the apotheosis of all that tooling and retooling and test driving and refining and upgrading. Trophies and rewards are nice, but Miles’ passion is deep whether it’s Le Mans at stake or the littler races around his California neighborhood.

Often he wins. On rare occasion he doesn’t. As with many a sport, auto racing has its own set of complex, nitpicky technicalities that can be invoked to yank away triumph or even participation, as in one early debacle that has Miles arguing with a low-tier judge over trunk size requirements. But at the end of the day, some things are more meaningful than winning. Among other things, passing on legacies to children is cool. Making the family proud is a lovely antidote for those workingman blues. And sometimes it’s enough just to demonstrate that you can run laps around all those other turtles who refuse to accept you’re the best there is at what you do.

Nitpicking? It’s helpful to come to FvF with some working knowledge of auto racing in general and how “racing teams” work in particular. I used to listen to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio as a kid, and made the two-mile walk from our old townhouse to attend it in person twice. I haven’t kept up with the 500 too closely, but strictly speaking, it’s the one sport I know better than any other. But that’s Indy Car racing, which isn’t the same league as Le Mans. Most of the knowledge seemed to transfer over, thankfully.

On the other hand, the film is more suspenseful if you know nothing about its history, especially pertaining to Le Mans victories, the Ford GT40, or Ken Miles. I can see how some concepts might be foreshadowing to those who recognize their mentions, but it’s best not to go researching any more than what you already know before you watch.

Some might be unenthusiastic to tune in for a 2½-hour flashback to the halcyon days of the automotive industry, when filling machines with decomposed dinosaur remains and spewing smoke and toxins into the air was cool. The roar of the engines drowned out the roar of the crowd in their bustling, grungy grandstands, everyone drinking heavily while waiting to watch dozens of guys driving hundreds of miles in a circle. In case we need more hints that this is not the world of other of-the-moment films, one scene squarely captures Matt Damon in frame with a towering enlargement of that famous PG-rated baby-and-puppy Coppertone ad that may seem more scandalizing today than it was at the time.

So what’s to like? I think the last auto racing movie I sat through was 2008’s Speed Racer, in which the cars were shiny, weightless CG phantoms, probably fueled by some combination of solar power and unicorn sweat, which made hardly any noise as they cruised at Mach 5 down their slick Hot Wheels plastic tracks and made nary a noise save the simulation of winds sliding past every chassis like the purring of cats. Contrasted with my in-person experience at the IMS — where thirty-three racing engines firing on every available cylinder is like the guttural bellows of an army of dragons rattling you to the very marrow for four straight hours without relief — and, well, Speed Racer and his opponents may have been harbingers of a future century of auto racing where everything is as insubstantial as the old Pole Position video games, but in the here and now they were blatant fakers, as impossible to respect as the fake dog in that trailer for The Call of the Wild.

Ford v Ferrari gets racing and its engines right. In a theater with all those 21st-century speakers cranked up, it still wasn’t as loud as the real thing, but it was a much closer and more satisfying approximation — muscular and heavy on the decibels, ably differentiated between each engine’s signature sound whether they’re pitted one-on-one around a tight corner or thrumming in metallic harmony. I’m taking it on faith that much of what we see is practical stunt work and gloriously reborn stunt driving, hopefully not too much CG recreation. I’ll understand and accept if some of the scarier crashes — of which there’re quite a few, including more than one that leave drivers on fire — are in fact modern trickery. But if they’re all real stuntmen pulling out the stops? Awesome job, then.

When they’re not on the tracks, the dynamic duo of Batman and Bourne make a fine team — Bale the unwanted underdog, charismatic even in the worst of tantrums; and Damon staking out a middleman’s version of pride and glory. I half expected him to waste minutes reflecting on his own ended racing career and jealously whining how it should be him out there winning Le Mans, but this isn’t that movie and he isn’t that retiree. Shelby wants Miles to win, wants to help make it happen, and demonstrates the leadership it takes to manage good people in a tough situation where sometimes undercutting the bosses gets better results, and yet accepting that sometimes you have to follow orders even when they’re lousy, because that comes with making a deal with the devil. Later you can either forgive yourself for toadying or prepare your best indignant I-TOLD-YOU-SO speech to deliver to your inept superiors once things go awry and it’s clearly their fault.

The rousing story of team players, American ingenuity, individual success, mechanical poetry, and dispiriting interference has numerous parallels in the world beyond fast cars. Sometimes when creators are given free rein with company property, you get James Mangold’s Logan. Sometimes when the wrong people have the power, you get Dark Phoenix. The trick in such situations is to make the most of what you can while you can, stay true to yourself while you’re down in the middle of it, refine your talent till your inner compass is finely honed, find fulfillment in your contributions, and trust that others will recognize your accomplishments even when it’s not your name on the deed or in the logo.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Ford v Ferrari end credits, and you can bet there’s also no ringing endorsement from the Ford Motor Company, either. Permission was apparently granted for use of imagery from a Henry Ford Collection, so someone up there in Michigan was okay with this film’s version of his company.

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