There are times when the success of a film is more about what it doesn’t do than what it does. While just about everything in cinema has high and low points, more often than not a film is as good as or better than the sum of its parts.
But in the case of Ford v. Ferrari, the key to the entertainment is more in ignoring the negative aspects as much as you can when the good stuff is right in your face. On the whole, this is a pretty good film, and worthy of awards consideration in certain categories. That said, there are some problematic things that could have sunk the entire operation, were the good parts not so good as to outweigh them.
The film is at its best when Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) get to be big kids, bonding, fighting, and just acting like brothers as they prepare to race at the 24 Hours at Le Mans. The two have a natural rapport, and because Christian Bale is inarguably one of the greatest character actors of his generation, just about every near-Cockney remark or raised eyebrow elicits a laugh. He also does especially well distinguishing between Ken Miles the racer and Ken Miles the family man, amiably playing a devoted husband and father to Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and hero worshiping Peter (Noah Jupe).
It’s essential to highlight these moments of levity, because the main plot basically boils down to a pissing contest between billionaires and corporate executives. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) introduces himself by threatening an entire factory of auto workers that if they don’t bring him innovative ideas to boost sales, they’ll be fired. Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), is an appropriately slimy suit who does everything in his power to sabotage Ken and constantly finds ways to fail upwards. Even a young Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) can’t help but lay on the Mad Men tropes thicker than blood when he tries to broker deals and charm business partners. Each of these characters has a fun moment or two (at one point Henry II dismisses James Bond driving an Aston Martin because, “He’s a deviant.”), but the fact that this epic sports tale is really about odious, manipulative, corporate bullshit really does leave a sour taste in your mouth, one that is certainly not alleviated by the sheer bombardment of product placement. Part of me wonders if the reason the film is called Le Mans ’66 in the rest of the world is because international distributors didn’t want to give Ford and Ferrari any more free advertising than they already got.
Even the likable stars aren’t immune, as there’s a not-so-subtle moment when Shellby and Miles wrestle in the yard and Bale dramatically pauses so a loaf of Wonder Bread can be framed in the center of the camera before he whomps Damon on the head with it. Also, while a positive protagonist, Damon opens the film by driving his sports car around Los Angeles like the world’s biggest asshole. Seriously, I’ve lived in this city for five years, and by far my worst pet peeve (other than the phrase “pet peeve” itself) is that there’s a direct correlation between how expensive a person’s car is and how recklessly they drive. The higher the price tag, the more drivers think the rules don’t apply to them. You’ll never see a guy in a beat up Tercel sliding across five lanes from the carpool when he’s driving alone to an exit he’s already missed without signalling. But you will see it almost daily from some douchebag in a Mercedes or a BMW. If they can afford a six-figure luxury sports car like a Ferrari, then just pray for your own survival. And sadly, because the cops never pull them over, their presumption of impunity is basically accurate.
Anyway, whenever these painful moments intrude on the proceedings, it’s essential to remind yourself that it’ll just be a little while before we get back to some good dialogue, or some top notch acting (Bale deserves yet another Oscar nomination, I feel), or more importantly, some pretty spectacular technical aspects.
Apart from time jumps in the story (down to the director more than anyone else), as well as using a different take of the “two or three hundred years” line from the trailer (I don’t know why some movies do that, but it’s annoying), the editing is fantastic. It’s almost impossible to tell when a racing scene is live action or CGI, and when it’s a combination of the two, the transition is nearly seamless. Additionally, the cinematography, visual effects, and sound design are all worthy of consideration for some Academy hardware. In particular the film should get some recognition for the sound effects editing, as the roar of the engines on dozens of penis substitutes are each unique and identifiable to a specific car, and the levels rise and fall appropriately with the acoustics of whatever setting the scene is in, be it an airport hangar, city street, or on the actual coarse, inside and outside of the vehicle itself. You can tell a lot of attention to detail went into this aspect.
So that’s the long and short of it. This is a perfectly fine film that will likely be among the front-runners in the technical categories come Oscar Night, but apart from Christian Bale, I wouldn’t expect any real chances in the major fields. That said, this was a really enjoyable experience because while the film has some major red flags and a ton of corporate crap floating around, the really great stuff takes center stage long enough and loud enough to help you drown it out.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was your first car? Do you think Lee Iacocca got to see this before he died over the summer? Let me know!