Ford v Ferrari, an old-school get-er-done drama in which Men do important Men Things and somehow Change The World with their Men Things, is your dad’s favorite film of the year. It’s a period drama soft-lobbed right down the middle, well-crafted and loaded with good actors. Can’t really say it’s a bad movie, because it’s too well made for that, but it’s very much what you expect. You think Ford v Ferrari is going to be a movie about Men doing Men Things, and it is a movie about Men doing Men Things. It has no opinion on those Men or their Men Things except that these Men do their Men Things very well. There is no particular insight other than that sometimes when Men get together to do Men Things, Great Things can happen. Ford v Ferrari does not have the insight or empathy of First Man, it just assumes these Men do their particular Men Things because they are the Men who do those Men Things. At least everyone’s mom is not named “Martha”.
Fans of racing will enjoy Ford v Ferrari for its faithful recreation of the midcentury racing era, complete with decently gripping race scenes. Director James Mangold knows how to put together a satisfying story, and Ford hits all the beats—promising upstart joins a rag-tag outfit to take down the big bully on the block, and there is a supportive wife and wiener kid for stakes, plus a stuffed shirt villain because how could audiences understand a movie unless there is a sneering country-club type telling the rag-tag outfit they don’t know how the game is played? (How did Josh Lucas, who should be the natural heir of Paul Newman, get turned into this guy in Hollywood? Someone rescue him with a rom-com or smart horror movie or something.)
In this case, the promising upstart is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an English race driver and mechanic who is as gifted as he is difficult. It’s a good thing his supportive wife (Catriona Balfe) and wiener kid (Noah Jupe) are along for the ride, or surely audiences would hate this sass-mouthing Brit who picks fights with everyone. I know when I go to a movie about car racing what I really want to see is a guy promising his wife he’ll quit his dangerous sport for good this time. What a groundbreaking moment, never seen anything like that in a sports movie before. Ken is lured back into driving for Ford Motor Company by Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon sporting a decent Texas twang), himself a retired racer who now builds race cars, and is hired to develop a racer for Ford by Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal, in what I can only assume is a part largely left on the cutting room floor).
The film revolves around Shelby’s bid to beat the dominant Ferrari team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race. Ford gets into racing because Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) embarrassed Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) in a failed merger bid. Weirdly, the film elides the fact that Shelby also had a grudge against Enzo Ferrari, after Ferrari rudely turned down Shelby for a team driving position. That’s the kind of detail that might, I don’t know, make a movie feel more intimate than “let’s beat these guys for the benefit of a Giant Corporation”. As is, Shelby’s rag-tag team of mechanics is working on a new car for no apparent reason. We know Henry Ford II’s motivation, but we never actually know Shelby’s or Miles’s, besides money, which is strangely unromantic for a film that romanticizes Men doing Men Things. You’d think they’d want to get into Shelby’s grudge and Miles’s lust for the Le Mans trophy. But no, as far as the film is concerned, they’re just there for money.
I actually quite enjoyed Ford v Ferrari, despite all its clichés. It’s too long and no one really cares about Henry Ford II getting his feelings hurt, but the scenes of the team developing and testing the car—the GT40—are pretty great. Marco Beltrami provides a swinging sixties score that is fun, and the race scenes share DNA with the greatest cinematic sporting event of all time, the match race in The Black Stallion. Like that scene, the Ford scenes are about the beauty of movement and the machine. Ron Howard’s Rush put to film some terrifying f-cking race scenes, but Ford isn’t trying to make racing seem scary—although it is; it’s more invested in highlighting the beauty of the race. And that does come through, watching these machines pushed to the limits of engineering battle for position and execute daring passes is exciting. I wish it came in a more interesting, inventive package, but Ford v Ferrari is perfectly serviceable. And your dad will love it.