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2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Ford v Ferrari
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Le Mens"
4 stars

“Ford v. Ferrari” tells the story of a couple of iconoclasts who have been employed by a monolithic company to pull off a seemingly impossible task and follows them as they struggle to accomplish this in the face of a unyielding corporate structure that seems to be designed solely to stymie them from accomplishing the very job that they were hired to do. This is a narrative structure that will always be timely but in this case, it is especially resonant because this is a film that was made by 20th Century Fox, a studio which was recently purchased by Disney, the superhero/animation/remake factory that would have never dreamed of investing a single cent in an expensive adult-oriented drama if they had been offered the chance to finance it. Although obviously inadvertent, this odd behind-the-scenes parallel adds an unexpected level of resonance to an otherwise familiar, if undeniably well-made, film, the kind that Hollywood used to make on a regular basis but which has now become an increasingly rare occurrence in the industry’s unfortunate shift to an all-tentpole business model.

The title, of course, refers to two of the most famous names in the history of the automotive industry but as the film begins in 1963, both of those companies are on the ropes—American manufacturer Ford is having trouble attracting young buyers for the same kind of stodgy autos favored by their parents while Ferrari, the designer of the kind of sleek sports cars favored by those younger buyers, is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Ford hatches a plan to kill two birds with one stone by simply purchasing Ferrari but at the last moment, the deal collapses acrimoniously with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) himself telling the Ford minions to remind their boss, Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) that he makes ugly cars in ugly factories and will never measure up to his father. Newly fired up and thirsting to put Ferrari in his place, Ford decides to spend whatever it will take to assemble both a car and a race team that will triumph at Le Mans, the grueling 24-hour European auto race that the Ferrari team has won handily for the past several years.

To head the program, the company hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a one-time driver who actually beat the Ferrari team and triumphed at Le Mans in 1959 before a heart ailment forced him out of competition for good. Now a designer of slick and sleek sports cars, Shelby agrees to the challenge because of his confidence that the company will leave him alone to do what they hired him to do in exactly the way that he needs to do it. The chief component in his plan is to utilize Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the hotheaded Brit who is his chief driver, to not only help him design the car but to actually be the lead driver for the Ford team to boot. Miles is skeptical—he cannot believe that an entity like Ford will let them do what they want how they want—but he eventually signs on. As it turns out, his fears are correct and the two start butting heads with the layers of Ford bureaucrats—specifically the weaselly VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who is put in charge with the program after having a dustup with Miles—about virtually everything, especially their belief that Miles is not really a Ford kind of guy and therefore should not be behind the wheel of the GT40, the car that he helped design and build, during the races. After a number of setbacks, Miles is finally given the okay and this leads to the extended final sequence in which he and the team race in the 1966 Le Mans with Miles trying to outwit Ferrari on the track and Shelby trying to outmaneuver Beebe’s attempts to steal Miles’s glory away even as he is setting speed records on the track.

The ultimate irony is that while “Ford v. Ferrari” is ostensibly a film that means to celebrate the process and triumph of ingenuity in the face of those who would prefer to stick with the status quo and not rock any boats along the way, it is one that pretty much winds up embracing the tried and true throughout instead of taking any real risks. This is a film that has been in development for a long time and at one point, Michael Mann was slated to direct it (he retains an executive producer credit) and I can almost picture the kind of film that he might have made out of the material, one that would eschew anything resembling melodramatics in order to focus more on the process of getting the car through the design process and on the track in the most detail-oriented manner imaginable. As I can also imagine most audiences rejecting that particular approach for taking a seemingly accessible David vs. Goliath—albeit one where the same entity serves as both David and Goliath at various points—and making it into something too chilly and remote to embrace. (You know, pretty much what happened with his great 1999 effort “The Insider.”) James Mangold, who eventually took the reins, is a fine filmmaker who has made a number of strong movies in the past (including “Heavy,” “Walk the Line” and “Logan”) but who really needs a strong screenplay in order to fully shine—otherwise, he is equally capable of cranking out duds like ‘Kate & Leopold,” “Knight and Day” and “Identity,” which I continue to believe to be one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen. Here, the screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller is serviceable enough but never much more than that. With its old-fashioned dramatic approach, the insertion of numerous dead weight scenes involving Miles and his wife (Catriona Balfe) and young son (Noah Jupe) and an insistence on dragging things out to over 2 1/2 hours of screen time, this is the kind of film that could have been produced back in the day alongside such racing epics as “Grand Prix” (1966) and the Steve McQueen vehicle “Le Mans” (1971) with nary a change. It works in the broad strokes on some fundamental level but if you are hoping to actually learn something in detail about what Shelby and Miles managed to accomplish—the kind of element that Mann presumably would have supplied—you are going to come away from it feeling a little disappointed.

And yet, even though “Ford v. Ferrari” never really clicks from a dramatic standpoint, it still has enough other things going for it to warrant a recommendation. While the straightforward narrative scenes are staged in an unfussy mater-of-fact manner by Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the film really comes alive once the action moves to the track and we are essentially placed right into the action alongside Miles. A lot of racing movies can get a little monotonous after a while but thanks to their efforts, not to mention those of editors Andrew Buckland, Michael McClusker and Dirk Westervelt, the automotive sequences have a truly visceral kick to them that makes for a legitimately thrilling and kinetic viewing experience. The performances from Damon and Bale are also both strong and smart throughout, though some may find the latter’s extremely broad approach to playing Miles to be just a little too over-the-top for them.

If one were to compare “Ford v. Ferrari” to the two radically different types of automobiles cited in its title, it would without a doubt favor the former—it does the job of getting you from point A to B in a smooth and efficient manner that offers no significant hiccups but which also fails to demonstrate any real sense of style or innovation. Of course, considering just how rare a film like this is these days, that kind of smooth efficiency may be enough for viewers who are eager to see anything with a story that hasn’t been designed primarily as a vehicle for selling toys and video games. Personally, I wanted a little more than that and while “Ford v. Ferrari” is ultimately good enough to warrant a look (and this is one that you definitely want to see on the biggest screen you can find), I came away from it liking it enough but wishing that it could have been just a little better.

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originally posted: 11/15/19 06:55:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/09/20 morris campbell not a racing fan but i liked it just the same 4 stars
2/20/20 Chester Fascinating glimpse into racing history marred by corny scenes. 4 stars
12/21/19 BERNARD OK movie 4 stars
11/26/19 Bob Dog Great racing historical biopic. 5 stars
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  15-Nov-2019 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Feb-2020


  DVD: 11-Feb-2020

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