If it weren’t for Christian Bale, I probably would never watch a movie about car racing and the feud between car manufacturers. But early buzz about being an Oscar contender and the fact that James Mangold is the director enticed me a bit more and to my surprise, ‘Ford v Ferrari’ has quite the anti-corporation message that I wasn’t expecting from watching the trailer, and I very much appreciated it.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ is based on the true story of American racing star turned car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver and engineer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they are hired by Ford to build and design a race car to compete against Ferrari at the 24-hour Le Mans, a whole day race in France.
The film is first set up as a sports movie, with a coach-player dynamic between Shelby and Miles as they have to deal with their own personal demons — Shelby, who had to bow out from racing earlier than intended, while Miles has to deal with his inability to listen to authority — to win this race. But as the film continues to unfold, it also underlines how big corporations and their committees and bureaucracy get in the way of human accomplishment.
While the film manages to uplift Shelby and Miles by showcasing their decisions to overcome their own weaknesses, humanizing them and highlighting the strength of their character, the film also goes as far as to demonize the corporate system, putting out in full display the pride and arrogance of corporate types who feel the need to take charge and act like a boss because they are in suits when, in truth, they had no real hand in the building and testing of the machines that are at the forefront of their company.
There’s a lot in ‘Ford v Ferrari’ that feels like Oscar-bait. While Damon, Bale, Catriona Balfe (who plays Ken Miles’ wife Mollie), Jon Bernthal (who plays Ford executive Lee Iacocca), and Noah Jupe (who plays Ken Miles’ son Peter) all give amazing performances, each of their big moments feel like they are shot and covered just right for an award season clip. Bale really shines as Ken Miles, though, because it’s another transformative performance from him. His Ken Miles is buoyant and unpredictable, and it is a light and charming performance that we haven’t seen from him in a long time. It’s a genuinely light-hearted, comedic performance that doesn’t have his signature intensity, which creates a completely new character for him. It’s a shoe-in for a nomination, for sure.
Aside from the standard beats of a sports movie and the surprising narrative points that show the corporate interferences with what Shelby and Miles have set out to do, the film like any sports movie does its best to try and explain the challenges of the sport and raises the stakes that Miles has to overcome to win against the then-unbeatable Ferrari.
I’m no racing fan but even I got engaged and invested in the race at some point. Mangold manages to infuse the sport with the human aspect, like any good sports movie, and we understand what is really at stake here. And more than just being another race, or a battle between car manufacturers for a title, the film also becomes a testament to human ingenuity and invention. The technology we all enjoy now are all products of great minds — scientists and engineers and, for cars, test drivers — and without having to say it, you could feel the pride the filmmaker has with what man is capable of doing when one pushes himself to the limit.
And, as the film shows us, what man can do not just for himself or for science, but for his fellow man.
Yes, there’s an Oscar-bait feel to the movie but great performances, strong direction, and touching upon the proper narrative beats for a sports film makes ‘Ford v Ferrari’ an enjoyable two and a half hour ride in the cinema.