In Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold, working from a script by Jez Butterworth; John-Henry Butterworth; and Jason Keller, aims to capture the euphoria found inside the dangerous world of racing. The opening voiceover from Matt Damon’s car-driver-turned-car-dealer Carroll Shelby expresses a longing for that moment when the car peaks at 7,000 revolutions per minutes. At this speed, the car becomes weightless, a non-existent entity, and the driver simply moves along the open air as if carried forth through pure adrenaline alone.
Mangold eventually gets to a place where his film can attempt to distill that euphoric, high-adrenaline feeling. Certainly, there is a scene or two of motor-revving intensity in the film. But before those scenes are many which rely on shop talk or strained metaphors that connect the art of racing to life. The former can be compelling, if not overcooked. The latter is rarely executed with grace, instead thuddingly hammering home the emotional core of the film.
Shelby is forced out of the racing world following the diagnosis of a heart condition, but he finds himself brought back into the fold in 1965 when Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) sets out to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race few Americans had won and no Ford had ever won.
The gambit is a sign of Ford Motor Company desperately attempting to live in a post-Fordist world. Ford is being bested by sleeker, more specialized companies like Ferrari. Given Ferrari is a consistent winner at Le Mans, Ford and his sneering crony in the marketing department (Josh Lucas) reluctantly agree to the radical plan from Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to appeal to the baby boomer generation by designing a sports car that can beat Ferrari.
Shelby enlists the notoriously “difficult” driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive the race, but his inability to be kept in check could be a detriment to Ford’s straight-laced brand. The irony that it is this very brand that is hurting their sales never really sets in for Ford and company.
Ford v Ferrari could have been about this struggle between its title players, and for a minute or two it feels like this will be the case. A heated exchange between Ford and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), via an intermediary, shows the prideful and petty nature of their business practices. From here, the narrative is repositioned so that the business entities are merely obstacles in the pursuit of the “perfect lap,” which Shelby and Miles strive for in their tireless work on the Ford race car.
Spending such a long time setting up these eponymous entities is a detriment to the pacing of this already overlong film. Even titling the film Ford v Ferrari is strange, given how unlikable these enterprises are made out to be (the title is in fact Le Mans ’66 in some other territories). Shelby and Miles are what give this story any sense of life, and their relationship is defined in large part on teen boy ethics (the two literally tussle on the ground in order to become friends again). Miles’ relationship to his son (Noah Jupe) also fades in and out of prominence within the narrative, but it is defined too squarely by trite metaphors and shots of the boy looking on in awe of his dad’s racing ability.
With this struggle to ground the narrative in something meaningful comes two acts of waning interest. The gritty work done to make the car a winner is compelling, but these sequences have to bear the weight of these unsatisfying relationships. After a while, watching this engineering process grows tedious.
Then comes the Daytona sequence, which breathes new life into this film so fast it could beat the Daytona lap record. Here is when Mangold accelerates, engaging in snappy editing and some clever shooting. The Le Mans section of the film, too, is more engaging merely for the race aspect of it.
But even the quieter moments between Daytona and Le Mans are better; they’re more emotionally resonant than what has come before. Miles speaking with his son before leaving for France is the most potent moment they have together. Miles and Shelby sharing a moment on the Le Mans track the night before the race is the most potent moment they have together.
Problem is, it takes too long to get to these moments. The narrative loses itself in the politics of corporations and in the superficial conversations about the art of the race. The beating heart of Ford v Ferrari is in its climactic final act, which is then let down by the abrupt emotional appeals of the denouement. But, if only for a moment, the film pushes to 7,000 RPMs.
Ford v Ferrari: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)