This is going to seem really off topic but bear with me. There’s this video game called Mass Effect set in a science fiction universe and in that universe there’s this war-like alien species called the Krogan who were genetically altered after a war of make much of their population infertile. Again, bear with me. So there’s a conversation with one of these aliens in the game where he says that, in addition to the obvious reasons he thinks this is awful, he also worries that this genetic warfare is additionally making the species soft because every child that is born is treated as a miracle and gets more pampered than it normally would in their culture and this keeps them from gaining the toughness the species was known for. I mention this because, in many ways, I think a similar thing happens whenever Hollywood puts some money behind a non-franchise film intended for adults. We’re so accustomed to bitching about Hollywood only making franchise movies for teenagers that anytime they do give us what we supposedly want we get so damn grateful that we treat the movie with kid gloves even if it maybe doesn’t actually stack up. Case in point, the new film Ford V. Ferrari has been welcomed with open arms seemingly less for its own qualities than for simply what it is: a $97 million dollar 20th Century Fox film with no sequel potential and with subject matter that no one under 25 will naturally gravitate toward.
Ford V. Ferrari focuses primarily on a man named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (driving for Aston Martin) before being forced into retiring from professional racecar driving because of a heart issue and transitioning into behind the scenes roles in the automotive world. As he’s getting his footing in that role things are shifting the industry. At Ford they’re trying to break into the world of international motorsport out of a desire to give their cars a sexier sporty image and Shelby is the first person they go to for assistance. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) promises Shelby that he’ll be given unlimited resources and that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is going to give him full autonomy. Shelby hesitantly agrees and seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled but down on his luck British racer who lives in American and often has trouble getting sponsors because of his “difficult” personality. Together they begin work on the car that would become the Ford GT40 but whether or not it will be able to beat perennial winner Ferrari at this storied race remains unclear.
In various foreign markets this film is being released under the title Le Mans ’66, a title that implies that this is mostly just about racing, but its domestic title is telling. Firstly it joins Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice in an odd trend of having movies follow the naming conventions of Supreme Court cases, but primarily it signals this as a movie about an American motor company going head to head with an elitist European rival. And yet you won’t really see a whole lot of Ferrari in the movie, they largely exist as a specter on the periphery of the film and it’s not entirely clear how invested they really are in this little rivalry. The film also doesn’t really do much to make a case for why Ford winning this fight would actually be a good thing outside of blind patriotism. Really, the film seems to have a rather unusual understanding about who the Goliath is in this situation and who the David is. It would seem to me that Enzo Ferrari is the one who put his blood sweat and tears into sport of auto racing and the craft of making quality vehicles while Ford is a giant corporation who get the notion to buy its way into victory against him on a marketing whim so that they could then sell exploding Pintos to unsuspecting consumers for the next decade. Shouldn’t Ford be the bad guy here?
So this isn’t much of an underdog sports movie but is it a good sports movie generally? Well, the racing certainly looks good. There isn’t a ton of it really but the crash scenes certainly look impactful when they occur and the movie does a reasonably good job of showing the strategy involved in endurance racing. I was not, however, all that enamored with the film’s characters, who seemed to skew a bit too close to cliché for my taste. Matt Damon is essentially playing a long suffering coach, an even tempered guy who nonetheless quarrels with higher-ups and also needs to tame the wild passions of his star athlete, or driver in this case. As for that driver, well, he’s a character who would make more sense if he were about twenty years younger. As a college football player his aimless rebellion would makes sense but this is supposed to be a forty six year old man and my patience with his “difficult” behavior only went so far. I also didn’t care about his family like one bit.
But the character who really drove me crazy here was a Ford executive Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas. This character is meant to sort of be a stand-in for all the dumbest ideas the team got from Ford executives who don’t know what they’re talking about. He reminded me of something from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Die Hard where he says that the police chief from that movie was “in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.” I do think Ebert slightly over-emphasized how much of a problem that side character was for that movie, but Josh Lucas is about as much of a lame screenplay contrivance. Granted, some of my research suggests that a few of Beebe’s dumb decisions had some historical backing, but when you have an element like that in the story you’re adapting you really need to address it with some finesse and be careful not to exaggerate it and here they most certainly punch up the character’s idiocy rather than putting them in context and making them seem likely and plausible.
So I don’t exactly think this is anything special as a sports movie but I will say that if there’s anything that does make it potentially interesting it’s the fact that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for the process of Hollywood filmmaking. In this reading Ford is a stand-in for major studios of the 20th Century Fox variety who ultimately care more about the bottom line than craftsmanship but will occasionally indulge the creation of something a bit finer as a goodwill gesture. This would then make Shelby a stand-in for a high profile director that needs to wrangle everything together and stay in the good graces of the studio while pushing back on the meddling of all their executives. And then that would make Ken Miles a stand-in for a “difficult” actor that a director needs to find, fight to get cast, and then direct into using their talent correctly for the project at hand. It’s an interesting meta-level, and I do think this is an intentional element rather than something I’m generously reading into the film, but it’s also perhaps a bit of a double edged sword because there’s a certain ego involved in making your main character that much of a self-insert. James Mangold clearly views himself as the Carroll Shelby in all this, but from where I sit the movie he’s made is less of a Ford GT40 and more of a Ford Fusion: a perfectly functional product but not something you should be bragging about as if it were some exemplar of what automaking can be at the highest levels.
*** out of Five