Just before the lights dimmed on the latest feature from Logan mastermind James Mangold, my partner whispered to me, “This better not be real-life Talladega Nights!” And while, I must admit, I’m a decently registered fan of Adam McKay’s comedic send-up of the Nascar set, the idea of seeing that sort of thing played straight threw me for a slight loop.
And damn it if Ford v. Ferrari doesn’t immediately kick-off by bringing that worst-case scenario somewhat to bear; with an exhausted Carol Shelby (Matt Damon) in the midst of his winning laps at Le Mans, the 24-hour endurance test of automobile racing. After his car catches somewhat ablaze, Shelby pulls into the pit, and despite his team telling he can’t possibly go on…you’ll be hard pressed to believe it, but he does indeed go on (and does so with a Ricky Bobby style “Am I on fire?” to dissuade anyone standing in his way). Shelby goes on to win Le Mans, but one quick scene at the doctor later, and we learn the man’s ticker simply won’t allow him to race anymore. So instead, he runs his own auto manufacturer and hosts a race team as an extra excursion, captained by his longtime friend, and hothead Brit, Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
Ken is just as liable to toss a wrench at Carol as he is to hug him, but that doesn’t stop him from being a dynamite on the race track. With a few “Pip Pips” and “Oi Gov’nahs!” in the process, Ken comes home to his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and child (Noah Jupe) with a trophy in hand. It’s all nice and middle class, until unbeknownst to this unlikely pair of grease monkeys, the Ford Motor Company, in attempt to juice their flagging profits, makes an offer on Ferrari. After a promising deal quickly falls apart, and a few insults later, Ford instead wants to go head to head with Ferrari on their own turf, Le Mans. Because that’s totally something you do after a failed corporate merger. But hop into the race they do, and thanks to the machinations of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, just happy to be here), they enlist our hapless duo from earlier…remember them?… to race Ford’s way to victory, and to really show them I-talians what American Innovation™ is all about!
Ford v Ferrari, not be confused with Batman v Superman, though they both sound like Supreme Court cases, has an absolutely dreadful opening half-hour. Everything is played to the hilt, the kind of film where an angry “heavy” take on Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) makes someone hit a big button to stop all production, or where Mollie Miles inexplicably starts driving like a maniac when her husband mentions the possibility of getting involved in this Le Mans scheme, really just because. Before the stuff you probably came to see gets started, it’s as if Mangold and Jez Butterworth (a brilliant playwright) needed to find some way to keep all the dads in the audience excited for a bit, to the point where the film feels like its operating in a hyper-reality. If anything is hearkens back to the Mangold of Walk The Line, where every major moment is punctuated for maximum dramatic effect.
Once the shape of the narrative finally really comes into view, though, Ford v Ferrari finally kicks it up a notch (or second-gear, you might say!). The actual racing scenes, which dominate the back-half, are particularly thrilling. This is where the Mangold who gave us some of the best ‘Wow!’ moments of the Wolverine films surfaces. This portion of the film employs fascinating framing of tension-filled moments where you constantly wonder if their newly designed car will just explode underneath him. Bale, finding a rhythm and a bit more of a three-dimensional character as the running time ticks on, does a remarkable job selling the plight of this tremendously talented individual whose short fuse gets him in more trouble than he might be worth, and certainly puts him at odds with the stuffy suits at Ford. As it continues on its merry way, watching Damon and Bale really put the screws to corporate America does engender some visceral pleasures, and the climax of the big race itself features an unexpected turn for those unfamiliar with the history at play. But much like how our memories of these real-life American heroes have evaporated through the sands of time, as soon as the credits roll, the events of this film will quickly fade into the rearview mirror. (I promised myself only a few car puns. I feel like I really accomplished something today.)
Ford v Ferrari: if you were catching it randomly on TNT on some Sunday in the future, it might prove an okay way to pass an hour and a half. But after Logan, it’s hard to not wish for just a little more. I’m sure your dad will love it though.