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Race to the top – ‘Ford v. Ferrari’

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One of the complaints surrounding awards shows like the Oscars in recent years is the fact that often, the movies up for these honors aren’t necessarily movies that a lot of people have seen. They are critical darlings, but that acclaim only sometimes translates to significant commercial success.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that relative rarity, a film intended to win both at the ballot box and the box office. It’s pure Oscar bait, but with a big-budget sensibility – no surprise considering we’re talking about Disney here. It’s a sports movie and a biopic – the story of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to usurp Ferrari’s place atop the racing world back in the 1960s – with two no-doubt movie stars heading up the cast.

This kind of movie was once a mainstay of mainstream Hollywood. Now, it’s an unexpected treat. And it is a treat – you’ve got a talented and flexible studio director in James Mangold, with A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale taking turns driving. Just like the race cars produced by its namesakes, “Ford v. Ferrari” is sleek and fast; a powerful and expensive machine.

In the early 1960s, an up-and-coming Ford exec named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, TV’s “The Punisher”) has a proposal for company owner Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, TV’s “Divorce”): put together a Ford team to win the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, thus raising the company profile and selling more cars.

Iacocca eventually reaches out to Carroll Shelby (Damon), a racing team owner who also happens to be the only American driver to ever win Le Mans, though he’s now retired from driving due to his health. Fortunately, Shelby’s team’s driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Bale) has more than enough talent to handle the demands of the gig. Unfortunately, he also has more than enough attitude. His volatility has some Ford execs – particularly senior executive VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, “Breakthrough”) – questioning whether Miles has what it takes to properly represent Ford’s interests.

Meanwhile, Miles is simply trying to do right by his family – his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe, TV’s “Outlander”) and his son Peter (Noah Jupe, “A Quiet Place”). Shelby wants Miles on his team, but the powers that be aren’t as confident and have some ideas of their own.

The ask – build a world-class race car and a world-class team to work with it in mere months – is enormous. Le Mans is a race far beyond the capabilities of most – can Shelby and Miles overcome the obstacles (on the track and off it) and show the world that the Ford team has what it takes?

As odd as it might sound, “Ford v. Ferrari” isn’t really about racing. The racing world serves as the backdrop, the setting for the story, but at its core, the film is about challenging the status quo. It is about risking everything on a belief in yourself and the people with whom you’ve surrounded yourself. It is about the bold invention of the individual, pushing the limits of what’s possible in an effort to do that which has never been done before.

James Mangold is the absolute perfect director to helm a film like this. There’s a fluidity to his choices, a refusal to be bound by genre conventions even as he ping-pongs between them. He’s made biopics and westerns and superhero movies, usually by blurring the lines and cross-pollinating elements and ideas from style to style. “Ford v. Ferrari” allows him to do more of the same, bringing his understanding of relationship dynamics into the realm of the sports movie.

And it is a sports movie, despite not really being ABOUT racing, just as something like “Rocky” is a sports movie despite not really being ABOUT boxing. It could be just your standard “underdog triumphs against overwhelming odds,” but with Mangold at the helm, you get a little something extra.

All that being said, the racing scenes are well-executed, tense and compelling. Rather than trot out a tired device like a montage, Mangold devotes significant screen time to a single race – we spend something like 45 minutes straight in and around the car at the climactic event; we’re given a sense of not just the pageantry of the race on a macro scale, but also the nigh-claustrophobic insularity of being in the driver’s seat for hours at a stretch.

It helps to have two generational-type movie stars in the lead. Damon gives a sharp, somewhat understated performance as Carroll Shelby, capturing the hard-as-nails determination while also allowing occasional peeks at the loyal sensitivity beneath it all. Bale’s is the showier role; his Ken Miles is a firebrand brimming with energy. The scenes with the two of them have an almost-electric crackle, the audience’s eyes arrested by the sheer presence on display. Both men will feature prominently in awards season conversation over the next few months – and deservedly so.

It’s not JUST them, though – Bernthal, Letts, Balfe, Lucas … every one of them shine. Letts in particular finds a brand of entitled pomposity for Ford that is a delight, while Lucas goes full dirtbag in an extremely hateable way. Special props to Remo Girone as Enzo Ferrari and top-tier That Guy Ray McKinnon as Shelby team member Phil Remington.

“Ford v. Ferrari” is a big-budget prestige picture, the kind of movie we see far less often than we once did. It is beautifully made and engagingly told, featuring a wealth of exceptional performances led by Damon and Bale. All in all, a race well-run.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 19 November 2019 06:59

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