Men doing manly men things with other manly men and generally taking a manly approach to achieve their manly man ambitions would probably be too long a tagline for James Mangold’s latest heady blockbuster, Ford v Ferrari, but it would sure be accurate. Titled Le Mans ‘66 in the U.K., this meaty, shiny petrolhead period piece will seriously test your tolerance for masculinity — frequently the toxic sort. You would be hard-pressed to find a manlier movie at the 2019 London Film Festival. Equally, however, you would be hard-pressed to find a film with more giddy, thrilling showmanship, or more delicious aesthetics, and frankly, despite all the genuine concerns surrounding the film’s maleness, whiteness, and occasionally godawful dialogue, tons of fun.
The stars of the show truly shine, while some contributors conspicuously lag behind. The script, written by noted British playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth, his brother John-Henry Butterworth, and American writer Jason Keller, is the most obvious weakness; for reasons, we will explore later, much of the film’s writing is truly lamentable. Thankfully, the direction, from the much-lauded James Mangold, is delightfully skilled, with nearly every shot, cut, and sequence feeling clever, intriguing, and more often than not, masterful. Further, the film is led by two magnetic leading actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, whose endlessly charming presences are worth the price of admission alone.
Ford v Ferrari starts as it means to go on. Damon, with alert eyes and a familiar intensity to his movement, embodies legendary motorhead Carroll Shelby as he wins the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1959, cementing his place in history as the first American to win the competition. Shelby pulls in for a pit stop and leaps out just as his heaving vehicle bursts into flames. His team extinguishes the fire quickly; Shelby smacks the flames off his own shoulder. Everyone looks at him as if he’ll have to bow out after this; he stares incredulously back and yells “Am I on fire?!” They shake their head no, refuel the car, and he leaps back into the continue the crusade.
From the off, Ford v Ferrari explores perseverance, brio, and death-defying ingenuity. It also spotlights a few uproariously stubborn, abrasive white men who are openly repulsed by the idea of compromise, patience, or worst of all, losing. Now, this could very well be a turn-off for many, and I admit, the hubris on display was squirm-inducing more than once during the film’s sprawling two and a half hours, but the talent assembled proves more than capable of diverting this reaction and supplanting it with so much adrenaline-fueled bombast that the toxicity of it all will likely become an unexpected part of the fun.
As the film moves forward to the mid-1960s, Shelby is forced to give up his driving career, and equally fiery car expert Ken Miles (Bale), is out of a job and similarly feeling over-the-hill — both men are unable to utilize their immense capabilities or ambitions in the world of automobile racing. Thus, the stage is set for our heroes to prove themselves in a big way when the Ford Company comes knocking.
In an enjoyably journalistic subplot, the script examines the sorry state of Ford during this period; Henry Ford II, played with scene-stealing gravity by Tracy Letts, is domineering but quietly desperate to achieve something resembling the world-changing success of his father. Enter the magnificent Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, a name known to just about every car-lover out there, who proposes Ford rethink dealing in dumpy family sedans and prove themselves a real fighting force by manufacturing real sports cars, and winning Le Mans. This involves not only crafting the perfect car in an unstable American auto industry but then beating perennial champions Ferrari at their own game. So begins a half-decade-spanning crusade to make this lofty dream a reality, involving many, many montages of car-building, car-testing, car-racing, and delightfully indulgent automobile porn for car-lovers.
One of the cheekier jabs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt involves director Fritz Lang, playing himself, remarking that the widescreen Cinemascope aspect ratio is only good for filming snakes and funerals. Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael deftly prove that we should really add racecars to the list. Papamichael (an Oscar nominee for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska) crafts some mouth-watering visuals out of this quixotic adventure, from the sun glinting off the elegant chassis of Ford’s GT40 racer, to Shelby’s enviable collection of 1960s convertible coupes, to a charmingly bonkers and brilliantly composed scene involving a harebrained airplane landing. The film is a delight to look at; its racing scenes, which naturally both push the story along and provide opportunities for some pulse-pounding excitement, do not disappoint. In fact, the visuals, coupled with Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ rousing score, make these sequences some of the most exhilarating race scenes around. If you take kindly to automobile-based bombast of any kind, then get yourself to Ford v Ferrari fast.
If you cannot stand gratingly expositional dialogue and shockingly thin writing for female characters, perhaps think again. For as beguiling as the action is, much of the writing seriously disappoints. A remarkable amount of lines are nothing more than bald exposition: “We agreed to this in that meeting, you know that!”, “I’m just here to do what I said I would, which is…”, “It’s been six months, Carroll!”, and so on. Perhaps most lamentably, however, the character of Mollie Miles, Ken Miles’ wife, is a disheartening throwback to the kind of hysterical, unhelpful-wife figures who mostly exist to provide half-hearted proof that the writers have considered the effects the men’s actions have on their families but exhibit few characteristics of an actual person. One scene in particular between the couple, involving an egregiously ill-advised misinterpretation of female ‘agency,’ feels as if it would be outdated even in the year in which the film takes place. Outlander star Catriona Balfe manages to squeeze a few agreeable moments out of the clearly underwritten role, but it should be noted that on this and other fronts, this film fails every ‘diversity test’ out there, and does not seem to care much at all.
Another odd point is the film’s tentative, brief address of the myopia and arrogance of its protagonists and their mission. The script and performances incorporate a number of intriguing self-reflexive acknowledgments here and there regarding the problematic elements at play, such as Miles’ brusque and egotistical demeanor, Shelby’s weaknesses as a figurehead, Ford’s callousness and inadequacy as a leader, and the overarching silliness of putting so much money, effort, blood and pain into winning a car race. However, although these notions are fascinating, and proof of some genuine intelligence under the hood, they are all rather quickly brushed aside for more vroom-vroom.
I joked beforehand with a friend that we were essentially about to see “classy Fast and the Furious.” This proved quite accurate. Mangold’s film is a mostly shameless vintage-styled romp, which brings to life a remarkable true story that is certainly worth telling, in a package that deserves a big screen and strong audio — a genuinely cinema-worthy experience. It is toxic masculinity at its most fun; take it or leave it on those terms. I finished the film curious to see what a more diverse lineup in a similar aesthetic would look like, but in equal part, pumped up and giddy at the spectacle I had just witnessed. I would recommend Ford v Ferrari to just about anyone for its aesthetic flair and cinematic bravado, though if the script feels just too antiquated, don’t say I didn’t warn you.