Gears, Pedals and the Male Ego: The Machinations of Ford v Ferrari

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is a full-throated exploration of engineering. This is a film that gets deep into the gears and pistons whirring and pumping away beneath shiny exteriors, all those bits and pieces that make the wheels turn.

I’m not referring to Ford’s GT40, the creation of which forms the film’s central storyline. While Mangold evinces a passing interest in the design decisions shaping that automobile, his film is far more preoccupied with the machinations of masculinity – primarily, how the male ego is intertwined with the ‘corporate culture’ that defined the 1960s setting and is just as dominant today.

Though well-intended, the film’s insistence on hearkening back to an old-fashioned mode of film-making – opting for a big sweeping underdog story driven by oppressively accessible screenwriter – means that it trades any deep insights for entertainment. Ford v Ferrari boasts the essential elements of a good film. It’s got handsome filmmaking, an engaging storyline and excellent acting: especially from Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles and Tracy Letts in a supporting role as Henry Ford II. But the film is so insistent on creating a smooth ride for every audience member than it’s unable to cut an original path to victory.

The screenplay – from three ‘J’s, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller – does its darnedest to set itself up as an underdog narrative. That’s tricky from the titular Ford vs Ferrari perspective, since Ford is a successful car-making conglomerate and Ferrari is a comparatively tiny company, on the brink of bankruptcy as the story begins. So, instead the underdogs are Miles – who’s undervalued for his erratic behaviour and the threat he presents to Ford’s marketing (and thus bottom line) – and Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby, a straight-down-the-line good ol’ boy, pitted against the corporate suits, represented chiefly by Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).

The underdog approach is a smart choice, keeping Ford v Ferrari gripping through its pit-stops and chicanes. But it necessitates some awkward contortions. For instance, Ford’s first attempt to beat Ferrari at the famous Le Mans 24 hour race goes sour. We don’t get to witness this, instead we join Miles in listening to the events over the radio from the States. Miles offers his own commentary, complaining about the drivers pushing the cars too hard. And yet, in almost every subsequent race – whether Daytona or a Le Mans rematch – Miles is deadset on pushing the GT40 to its limit. Again and again, we’re expected to side with the decisions made by our heroes because they’re our heroes.

This isn’t unique to this film, naturally. But it undercuts what seems to be an attempt to interrogate – or, at least, represent – how much the corporate competition here is driven by fragile masculinity. Though the Ford versus Ferrari rivalry initially begins as a marketing exercise proposed by Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), it soon turns personal – and racial – when Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) rejects Ford’s merger offer with a string of insults. Millions upon millions of dollars are thrown at winning Le Mans – sure, in part to sell cars, but mostly to show that “wop” his place. Except our heroes are, one way or another, just as complicit in this system, so any attempts to tease a subtext from the film falls flat.

Mangold also struggles to offer a real counterbalance to all this testosterone. The only female character with any lines, as far as I could tell, was Miles’ wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe). Initially, the screenplay splits her characterisation between the ‘worried wife’ and ‘supportive wife’ clichés: she loves racing, but hates when Ken keeps his decisions from her! But it’s not long before she’s a prop to be shuffled around the board, turning up to salve Ken’s bruised ego with a picnic basket looking like a model from a shampoo commercial. If this is the best you can do, perhaps best just to stick to the male characters and their many flaws.

The racing itself is exciting in its composition. Apparently filmed with real cars on real racetracks, it has a solidity and instability missing in, say, the Fast and the Furious films. However, it suffers from the fact that a 24 hour race is, frankly, not very cinematic. That’s not a criticism of the sport, which I admit I’m not especially familiar with. But, as an example: I love cricket. I recently finished watching the Netflix series Cricket Fever, with follows the Mumbai Indians’ attempts to win the 2018 India Premier League competition. IPL games are incredibly entertaining, but I found them far less engaging when condensed down to their highlights and sapped of context, despite loving the sport.

Car racing is much the same. One lap is of limited relevance, but that’s about all you can depict on the big screen. So the screenplay is forced to do the heavy lifting, with our supporting players regularly reminding no-one in particular that “he needs to pass him again to win!” (Of course, ‘he’ – being Ken Miles – does just that.) It’s engaging in small doses, but the full sweep of the race is necessarily obscured.

Look, Ford v Ferrari isn’t a bad film. It’s definitely a dad film, offering up a familiar mix of biopic, underdog sports story and male melodrama to pair with a cold macro-lager. But at every turn it takes the safer route: it could’ve been a much more interesting film had it simpler taken some tighter corners.

2.5 stars

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