Ford v Ferrari ★★★★

Back in January 2001, my brother and I had the day off from school, so my mom, to keep us busy, took us to a second-run theater to see Remember the Titans, knowing nothing more than it was a sports movie. It was much to her delight that the movie was about much more than sports, but about the harms of segregation, and especially appropriate given that the day was Martin Luther King Day.

And so today on Father’s Day 2020 I have accidentally stumbled upon watching about racing cars that seems entirely appropriate for the day: James Mangold's Ford vs. Ferrari. This movie does something I thought near impossible. It made me legitimately interested in watching car racing. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how a car works, nor do I care, and the very thought of attending a NASCAR event bores me to tears. But I challenge anyone to not get nervous while watching the film’s most tense moments of racing, which were some of the most well-edited and directed sequences in a film in 2019. A scene famous from the trailers shows a Ford exec in tears after a test run of a new vehicle. And the way the film manages to convey the speed and danger of driving is palpable, justifying the tears and relief the exec sheds upon the end of the ride.

But of course, a two and a half hour film of only racing scenes would be boring, no matter how well-crafted. Unfortunately the requisite scenes in the interim do the bare minimum to tide us over until the next racing sequence. They tell the story of how one-time racing great Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) managed to convince the struggling bureaucratic giant, Ford Motor Company, to start a racing division in order to improve sales by proving they are “cool” and can take on the more elite craftsmen’s cars from Ferrari. It’s John Henry vs. the Machine inverted; we’re rooting for the machine.

Or are we? Because the catch is that Shelby is ever in a power struggle with the suits from Ford, both Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) and especially his smug lieutenant Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) over the image Ford as a company should allow as they pursue Ferrari. The primary contention is that the best driver for the job, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), is an obnoxious, hot-headed British ex-pat with a mouth. He is, in Beebe’s pretentious opinion, “not a Ford man.” And so the movie goes, following the typical underdog format common to sports films as they rage against “the Man.”

Truthfully, this conflict was a little boring. Watching a bunch of men act like children fighting to prove that their toy (i.e. car) is the best is a little tiresome. Josh Lucas plays Beebe well in the sense that you hate him before he can even say a word, and his pettiness is grating. And given how dominant Miles is as a driver, it’s hard to understand just why he holds such hostility; an early-movie verbal tossup between Miles and Beebe just doesn’t seem to justify it.

And maybe that’s on of the points of this film: to point out and question the American (mostly) male’s tendency towards unjustifiable pride and unwillingness to yield to one’s betters. Scenes with Henry Ford II in particular portray an insufferable macho-ness and entitlement. He’s the head of the company yet faced with slumping sales he confronts a factory saying, “Whoever comes to my office with a new idea first, that person I will consider keeping their job,” as if he isn’t in any way responsible.

The childishness of this attitude is made clear in a memorable scene where Shelby and Miles begin wrestling like brothers in the middle of a park, only to stop, lie next to one another, and ask for Miles’ wife to bring them some sodas. The film seems to acknowledge that the male bravado on display everywhere is childish, setting itself up for a surprising and earned sacrifice of pride at the film’s end. It’s unfortunate the plot doesn’t explore this sacrifice further, as one character makes too abrupt an exit soon after.

And so the link to Father’s Day. Where the film’s interstitial scenes are most effective (and sometimes a ittle corny) are those focusing on Miles and his adolescent son, Pete. The boy idolizes his father, hiding in his room with a radio listen to his races deep into the night when his mother thinks he’s sleeping. There’s a very moving scene where Pete talks to the most senior member of Shelby and Miles’ crew and asks about the real risks of racecar driving, confronting the dark irony of “flame-proof” suits that are often far from it. But for Miles’ part, he will always choose his son as the first person with whom to celebrate a victory. The individual scenes can be moving, and his son often serves as the stand-in for us as the audience, but ultimately the side-plot goes little further than just saying, “Man, what a great Dad this racecar driver was!”

But as I said, any scenes that don’t take place within or just around a vehicle moving 200 mph are merely there to keep us busy while we wait for the next expertly crafted sequence. And so it’s hard to fault the film for not doing more with its characters and dialogue, because, let’s face it, you turned this on for the action, not to learn to be a better father. Still, as far as Father’s Day movies go, I’d happily watch this one again.