Ford v Ferrari: Suits v Creatives in this unexpectedly smart car-crash movie.

His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

When I was a senior in high school, one of the guys in my class had a Shelby Cobra. Everyone drooled over it, and even though I was more interested in the eye-liner I got to wear as a chorus boy in the school production of Pippin than bro-y things like fast cars, I recognized there was something special about it, that Shelby did for this car what Calvin Klein did for my ass.

Now, after all these years, I finally get to meet Carroll Shelby, via Matt Damon in Persols and a cowboy hat I would actually wear. 

We learn that Shelby was a champion race car driver, but got heart palpitations whenever he drove so eventually had to give it up. This same thing happened to me with Google-searching Tom Hardy images, so I get it. To stay as close to his passion as he could, Shelby turned to designing custom sports cars.

Meanwhile, it’s the early 60s, and the yes men at Ford Motor Company are getting reemed by Henry Ford II over lagging sales. “Ok, boomer”, they respond, which in this case means “Ok, let’s go after the young boomers who want sports cars now and will ruin the world in 50 years”. So Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, paying tribute to the recently deceased Iacocca by being smoking hot) suggests Ford buy Ferrari for their cache. The Ford suits go to Italy, where they are sneered at by the Ferrari suits, who need to be set up as villains for our final showdown. Old man Ferrari looks and acts like a mob boss from a Scorsese film, and he toys with the Ford people only to get more money out of his preferred suitor, fellow chic Italian brand Fiat. He sends Iacocca away, calling Ford cars ugly, which to this day doesn’t seem to have sunk in at Ford.

But back then it did start a $25 million dollar pissing match. Ford is determined to show up Ferrari by beating them at the most famous racing event in the world – something Ferrari always wins – called the 24 Hours of LeMans. It’s not like that race where they drive all over the French Riviera and try not to Grace Kelly off picturesque cliffs. In this one, racers speed around and around and around a short, rainy course for 24 hours straight. That’s the equivalent of logging 3000 miles endlessly circling the same block. I cannot imagine how torturous that would be, but then I’m not a mom who has to pick up her kid from private school.

Here’s where Shelby and his ace driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) come in, and here’s where the movie really kicks into gear. What could have been The Fast and the Furious with Wikipedia footnotes is instead a narrative that laps efficiently around the theme of Creativity v Capitalism, how those postwar formative years of American corporate think set the stage for a culture that slaps a “Premium” label on mediocrity and opens another Walmart. 

The film points out, without belaboring anything, that while corporate America loves to talk about originality and passion, it cannot abide the freedom original and passionate creative people need. As the character who embodies this concept, Miles is like a flesh and blood version of a rarified race car. He’s built for his purpose, taut and precise, but difficult to handle. Any variation in course, any bump in the road, can throw him into a tailspin. And when you need an actor who can play a car (in a non-animated context), you call Christian Bale. While he doesn’t go through one of his infamous transformations by ingesting gasoline, he does find the perfect speeds for both his on- and off-track life, turning a character that could have easily been a testy prick into a principled pro and conscientious family man. Bale is, as well, one of the least ‘corporate’ movie star out there, which fits the film’s allegiances. Even in a mega-franchise like Batman he insisted on freedom with his technique, and through his career has been loathe to brand himself with a familiar way of delivering a line or stylistic choices that can be recognized from role to role. That way he can be a Shelby Cobra or a Pierce Arrow, a Ferrari or a Mini Cooper. What he’ll never be, though, is a Ford.

That, unfortunately, is Matt Damon’s spot in the studio parking lot, the actor version of an F150, but with a cheeky bumper sticker like ‘My other car is Harvey Weinstein’s limo’. He’s stuck with the less flashy role here, caught as Shelby is between his affinity for corporate branding and his need to defend Miles’ individualism, so Matt settles into his usual track, but this is the brand of American hero he does so well, especially opposite a Brit who can match his cheeky banter.

With this level of quality in the directing, writing and acting, we expect everything else to match, and it does. We’ve seen automotive theatrics ad infinitum (what’s Fast & Furious on, number 7?), but Ford v Ferrari delivers race footage that feels more analog and tactile, and thus scarier every time Miles seals himself into a potential 200mph death trap. 

There is only one female in the macho world of Ford v Ferrari – Miles’ wife – and though she gets an over-the-top and out-of-nowhere scene trying to compensate for her minimal role, she just can’t compete with the real love interest here – the cars. It’s the mid 60s, so most of that pointy, finny business from the 50s has smoothed out into sensual curves, at least on the more sophisticated offerings. Shelby clearly had taste as well as skill, and you don’t wonder for a minute why all these guys are willing to risk their lives to get inside these curvy beauties (sorry, but the screenwriter’s name is Jez Butterworth, so they started it). 

I did go into Ford v Ferrari thinking it would be just a lark with some boys and their toys. But it’s much more, a wise and observant film about the pursuit of perfection in a homogenous culture, that also happens to get your adrenaline going. 

Ford v Ferrari is currently playing nationwide.

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