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Non-Review Review: Ford v. Ferrari (Le Mans ’66)

Ford v. Ferrari very much the Ford model of mid-budget adult-skewing awards fare.

It’s sturdy and reliable. It handles well. It also doesn’t have too many surprises under the hood. Ford v. Ferrari knows exactly what the audience wants from a film like this, and it often delivers right down to the shot. The camera is exactly where it needs to be, when it needs to be there – whether capturing the concerned expressions on a family nervously leaning in close to a radio or flying by the team manager as he watches his car cross the finish line on one of the last laps.

Food for thought.

It is easy to be cynical about all of this. Were somebody to approach Ford v. Ferrari cynically, they could argue that it is the product of a factory floor that is just as much a conveyor belt as those operated by Ford. However, there is a reason that this model of awards fare became an industry standard. Ford v. Ferrari constantly reminds its audience of the appeal underpinning this factory-built American craftsmanship. This sort of film was a staple of awards seasons for decades, and Ford v. Ferrari demonstrates just why that was.

Ford v. Ferrari is good, old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing awards fare.

Miles to go.

It helps that Ford v. Ferrari is very much aware of exactly what it is doing. There are plenty of movies about racing, after all. The template is incredibly familiar. It takes a certain kind of mindset to climb into a vehicle that operates at that speed, and to steer it down a course against lots of other people who share that mindset. At their most basic level, racing movies lend themselves to metaphors about men who are literally “driven” by their attraction to the lifestyle. Days of Thunder may not be a particularly good movie, but it typifies the genre.

The best movies about racing complicate that metaphor. Ron Howard’s Rush stands as both one of the best movies about racing and one of Ron Howard’s best movies, because it understands that racing is as much about design as technique. Howard introduced James Hunt as the familiar racing movie archetype, the lovable rogue who lives his life one mile at a time. However, Rush found itself drawn to Hunt’s oppositional figure, Niki Lauda, who was much more organised and efficient in his approach to the sport, much more invested in the craft and the rules.

Car-ry on, regardless.

Rush worked because it felt so much like a celebration of Ron Howard. Howard was never a bold visionary or auteur like other directors who enjoyed similar levels of commercial success; he was rarely considered a singular talent like Spielberg or Lucas or Nolan. However, Howard was a director who could generally be counted on to tell a good story, to avoid getting in his own way, to produce a project to a deadline and a budget. If Rush gravitated towards Niki Lauda over James Hunt, it was perhaps because it was easier to read Lauda as a stand-in for the film’s director.

There is something similar at play in Ford v. Ferrari. The film is directed by James Mangold. Much like Howard, Mangold is a reliable American director who works very well in the mode of crowd-pleasing mid-budget fare. Mangold’s filmography is populated with well-made and accessible films that have tended to play reasonably well with both audiences and critics; Copland, Walk the Line, Logan. Nevertheless, Mangold has never earned, nor has he attempted to cultivate, the sort of auteur persona that his choice of subjects might suggest. He is a clean and efficient film maker, who makes sturdy, reliable films.

Let it Shelby.

Despite its title, Ford v. Ferrari is much more about cooperation than competition. After finding itself in a sales slump, the Ford Motor Company decides that it wants to court some prestige and win over “the first seventeen year olds in history with money in their pockets.” It plans to do this by competing against Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a high-profile and high-stakes racing event. In order to win, the company recruits two mavericks; Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. The two set about trying to build a new type of car to an impossible schedule.

The nature of the 24 Hours of Le Mans shifts the tempo and rhythms of Ford v. Ferrari away from the standard racing movie template, at least a little bit. Instead of being a simple race to the finish line, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an endurance feat. It requires stamina as much as energy, commitment as much as simple drive. It isn’t about speed, it’s about sturdiness. It’s also about collaboration. After all, even Ken Miles cannot drive the whole day by himself. He’d have to swap out with another driver for an extended period to allow him the opportunity to rest.

Men of Le Mans…

As such, Ford v. Ferrari is a film invested in process as much as results. There’s a lot of meditation on what it takes to build a car, and to recruit a driver, capable of weathering the demanding conditions of a day-long race. “If this is a beauty contest,” Ken remarks at one point, “we’ve already lost.” However, Ford v. Ferrari is adamant that it is not a beauty contest. It is about reliability and sustainable. It is a sports movie about the importance of consistency. Ford v. Ferrari is as interested in how Shelby and Miles make it to the finish line as whether they get to cross it first.

Of course, it’s easy to overstate these small and subtle details that shade the conventional rhythms of the racing movie template. Ford v. Ferrari contains all of the classic sports movies clichés. At one point, Miles takes his son out to the airport runway that serves as his practice track. “The perfect lap is out there,” Miles explains. “Can you see it? A lot of people can’t.” Miles is a man who has visualised perfection, and so has dedicated his life to chasing it. There is a sense of destiny at work in his journey, as the audience wonders whether Miles might ever find that perfect lap.

He certainly has drive.

However, there is something interesting in the film’s emphasis on the creative process as inherently collaborative. It would be easy for Ford v. Ferrari to become a simple story of creative geniuses struggling against the suffocating suits. Indeed, the film repeatedly gestures in that direction. Miles lectures Shelby about the risks in assuming that he can trust the pencil-pushers at Ford, and the film offers a suitably “boo-hissable” suit in the form of “Senior Vice President” Leo Beebe, who takes an immediate and visceral dislike to Miles’ rugged individualism.

Still, Ford v. Ferrari tempers these impulses. Shelby is presented as something of a mediator between Miles individualist impulses and Ford’s corporate goals. Future President of Ford (and Chief Executive of Chrysler) Lee Iacocca comes out of Ford v. Ferrari rather well, played by a very grounded and down-to-earth Jon Bernthal. As much as Miles might gripe about the demands that Ferrari impose on him, he is still genuinely thrilled at the company’s efficiency; at one point, he’s shocked to find the model car he wants is already waiting outside for him. Similarly, Ford eventually learns it has to tolerate Miles’ eccentricities.

Motoring along.

Ford v. Ferrari is an archetypal underdog story, as much as one of the cornerstones of American industry can be deemed an “underdog.” The film hits all of the beats that this sort of story is expected to hit, and does that with considerable grace and efficiency. However, it is also a parable about the Hollywood studio system, and the creative process within that. It’s about the collaborative process, about the need for a singular vision that harmonises with corporate ambition to create something stronger and more resilient.

Early in the film, a racing announcer describes “journeyman Ken Miles.” To a certain extent, Ford v. Ferrari plays like an ode to the importance of journeymen on this sort of endeavour. It is a film about striking the right balance to get “just enough” auteurship within a rigidly corporate process to satisfy both the creatives and the suits. Ford v. Ferrari offers a very pragmatic and mature understanding of how these sorts of systems operate, understanding that it involveds reconciling competing viewpoints to accomplish something truly special.

When in Le Mans…

Ford v. Ferrari also feels like a movie about itself. As with something like The Aeronauts, there is a sense that Ford v. Ferrari is as much about trying to justify its own existence as it is about the story that it is nominally telling. After all, these sorts of mid-budget adult-skewing theatrically-released awards films are increasingly an endangered species. Like the Ford Motor Company at the start of Ford v. Ferrari, these sorts of projects have lost a lot of ground and often find themselves struggling to survive.

There’s a palpable anxiety within Ford v. Ferrari about outside actors breaking into an established market, destabilising it. Much is made of how Ford struggle to compete with Ferrari, who are operating both under a different business model and according to different business priorities. “Ennio Ferrari has spent the last thirty years chasing perfection,” Iacocca explains at one point. “He finally got there, but he went broke doing it.” This is what Ford is competing against, an artisanal company that has dedicated itself to chasing prestige without having to worry about losses or market forces.

They cant a-Ford to lose.

Ferrari operates under a model that doesn’t reconcile itself with the sort of American capitalism that Ford espouses. In many ways, this reflects the confused reaction that major studios have had to the intrusion of players like Netflix and Amazon into film making, companies that don’t have to worry about the same market stresses and which can afford to operate film production at what is essentially a massive deficit because they are both playing a longer game and are less immediately fixated on turning a profit. Netflix and Amazon don’t have to worry about the same market forces as Fox or Warner Brothers.

Indeed, there is something oddly appropriate in the fact that Ford v. Ferrari will likely be among the last major awards contenders released under the 20th Century Fox brand. After all, 20th Century Fox had been one of the few remaining studios to invest in these sorts of films, with varying degrees of success. The company produced films like Murder on the Orient Express, Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows in an effort to prove that the market for old-fashioned mid-budget adult-skewing films still existed.

Engines of destiny.

Of course, the situation is somewhat bleaker than Ford v. Ferrari acknowledges. 20th Century Fox is now all but gone, devoured whole by Disney. While the company will reportedly preserve the Searchlight branding for its awards fare, there have been massive lay-offs at the company. Meanwhile, Disney have reportedly pulled the company’s back catalogue from circulation. It seems highly unlikely that Disney will step into the void and invest in more movies like Bad Times at the El Royale, Widows and Ford v. Ferrari. As such, there’s a certain romance in this celebration of those types of film.

Ford v. Ferrari doesn’t necessarily drive the perfect lap, but it is a loving ode to the pursuit of it.

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