Dir. James Mangold; Matt Damon, Christian Bale, lots of race cars
[3 out of 4 stars]
Sitting in the sparsely-populated Island 10 Cinemas’ screening of director James Mangold’s new movie Ford v Ferrari (2019), I was struck by a few things. First, to reach my screening I had to navigate through the web of families and couples alike who were clumping in line for the opening night of Frozen 2 (2019). I note this not to bash those in line (I have quite a fond memory of watching the first film in the series with some of my favorite people on this earth), but rather because it occurred to me that with Disney scooping up all the intellectual property around, this 20th Century Fox drama I was about to step into also happened to be, technically, a Disney movie. My second thought was how exciting it was that this movie made $31 million its opening weekend. A racing drama headlined by two movie stars, and not a franchise in sight. Finally, once the movie actually started, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where exactly I’d heard the accent Matt Damon was putting on before, and then it hit me; he sounded just like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men (2007).
I mention all of this because I’ve found myself in the position of defending the theater-going experience in recent weeks, and while I’m sure all of these things may have occurred to me while sitting at home watching Ford v Ferrari on [insert chosen streaming service here] in a few months time, it strikes me that what followed those thoughts would have been shockingly different in this hypothetical future. Ford v Ferrari opens on a race track. Not in the stands, but right in the driver’s seat as Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) races in 24 Hours of Le Mans, the infamous French race. He wins, but ends up with a shut valve in his heart and a new career as a car salesman and designer. No more racing. Thankfully, though, he is good friends with Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a spitfire WWII veteran of a Brit who also happens to be one of the greatest race-car drivers in the world. So, when Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) comes calling on behalf of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who desperately wants to reinvigorate Ford Motor Company, Shelby jumps aboard to design a Ford that can compete with Ferrari at Le Mans. What ensues in an odyssey of design, success, failure, a war of personalities, and most importantly, lots of racing. This is a movie about spectacle, big and small, and sitting in that theater, I’ll be damned if I couldn’t see every drop of sweat on Miles’ face, feel every turn of that grueling track, and hell, almost smell the rubber.
Mangold is one of my favorite working directors out there precisely for much of what is at the heart of Ford v Ferrari: he has a deft hand for depicting complicated visions of masculinity in extreme situations. You can see this way back in his second directorial effort, Cop Land (1997), where Sylvester Stallone, playing cop, does battle with the likes of Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel to enforce justice on the streets of New Jersey. Jump ahead ten years, and he has remade 3:10 to Yuma (2007) with Bale fighting against time in the unforgiving west to deliver an outlaw, played by Russell Crowe, to the eponymous train. Most recently, Mangold’s work with Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine (2013) and Logan (2017) deconstructed the warrior image as it was refracted through both the samurai and cowboy traditions. I lay all of this out because Ford v Ferrari solidifies in my eyes Mangold’s place as an auteur of the masculine psyche, an inheritor and improver of the blockbuster psychoanalysis practiced by the likes of Howard Hawks. Shelby and Miles are as close to cowboys as one can get at the racetrack. Shelby eschews all manners of business deorum, and Miles settles arguments by throwing wrenches and driving fast, and Mangold shoots them as such. This movie is populated with medium-long “cowboy” shots, and the loving close-ups on Miles’ face as he drives, drives, drives, a shot quite like those favored by Sergio Leone in his many westerns. We are up close to these characters, and so we see the grit that has settled on their faces. They are crazy, and they know it, and Mangold knows that we know it, and so he dares not to look away as they whip around tracks and storm out of meetings. These are two men who make a living in and around a sport that routinely sees participants die in a flaming scrap heap, and yet they keep coming back in pursuit of that checkered flag.
In Bale and Damon, Mangold has found apt partners for this pursuit. Damon imbues Shelby with that everyman charm he has developed so well, working here just as effectively as it did in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or The Martian (2015). That Tommy Lee Jones accent just adds to that charm, because, at least for me, it carried with it a matter of trust that you just cannot achieve any other way. Bale is the firecracker in this equation. Much of the movie’s race scenes consist of him talking to himself as he drives, and it’s a conceit that, for all intents and purposes, should be hokey, but somehow isn’t. I don’t accredit that to the monologue writing since the lines themselves are rather uninspired, but Bale sells them with a lived-in sense that only someone of his caliber can achieve. I immediately believed that this man had been racing cars for years, and that this was simply how he handled it in the moment.
Much like he and Crowe played off each other in 3:10 to Yuma, Bale and Damon carry this movie with a push and pull of personalities. Damon makes Shelby a free-wheeling thinker who nonetheless has to handle the suits while Bale is the loose cannon who just drives and engineers. In an early scene, a man at the racetrack tells Miles he can’t race because the trunk of his car isn’t large enough. While Shelby debates cool-headedly with the man, Miles takes a wrench and bangs an indent into the trunk so the suitcase used to measure it will fit. Damon performs Shelby so as to fit the role of politician, and Bale brings the fire to the endeavor. There is a sprawling supporting cast around them, but this is, at heart, a two-hander for a pair of movie stars at the top of their game, and my Lord is it fun to see them revel in it. I invoked Hawks earlier and I bring him back again because these performances feel of another time in the best way. I could just as easily see Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart filling these shoes, and it’s a testament to Damon and Bale’s ability that they don’t shrink inside that comparison.
However, what exists outside the racetrack, Bale, and Damon is not particularly compelling. We have the more or less paint-by-numbers worried wife (Caitriona Balfe) and worshipful son (Noah Jupe) for Miles, and Shelby’s meetings with Ford are populated by a number of “oh I know that guy from somewhere” board member types. The performances are all fine, even quite good in some cases, but they are hemmed in by the reality that they are there for plot, not character reasons. Therefore, the movie loses steam when it lingers on these parts of the narrative. With a two hour and 32-minute runtime, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the movie would have benefitted from a number of these scenes being cut. It’s nice in one way to see Miles with his family, and better understand the inner workings of the Ford Motor Company. Yet, this is the story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, and I don’t really care about anything else. The script never makes a compelling case for the inclusion of anything outside of that.
A script like this in the hands of a second-class director and toplined by lesser stars would become a forgettable sports movie, rather, come to think of it, like what I expect Disney to churn out nowadays in the genre. But here, with Mangold’s push to examine masculinity alongside Damon and Bale bringing their A-game, the film transcends such an expectation, and becomes a visceral experience. I left the theater just after midnight, climbed in my 2006 Honda Pilot, and swore I could hear Bale’s voice whisper “drive.” And so I did, a little faster than I should have. Ford v Ferrari may not be revolutionary cinema, but it’s a damn good movie, and a thrill ride to behold in a theater. So, maybe wait for Frozen 2 on Disney + and give Le Mans a chance instead.