Ford v Ferrari comes in a complex time for the film industry. 20th Century Fox had big plans for the adult drama long before Disney’s acquisition of the studio. Focused on the real events of the 1996 24-hour endurance race of Le Mans, Ford v Ferrari was a perfect tale for a tentpole release in the eyes of Fox. No other studio would probably have as much faith in an adult sports drama to nearly fund $100 million for it. Now under Disney, the film represents one of Fox’s last visions for the industry. Can modern cinema find a place for multi-million dollar dramas? Ford v Ferrari seamlessly makes the case that it can, and should.
The film, as the title suggests, centers around the rivalry between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari in the lead up to Le Mans. Dominating the 24-hour race in the incalculable French countryside would clearly define the better car manufacturer. In the effort to climb out of a company-wide slump, Ford embarks on a pseudo rebrand to reestablish itself on top of the automotive industry. Unfortunately, Ferrari has conquered the race for the past years in a row. Enter established race engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and wild card British racer, Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
Together, the duo strives through their faults and grievances in trying to deliver the impossible – a Ford race car capable of beating Ferrari’s elite vehicles. The tale itself may seem pretty straightforward on the surface, but many complications (both internal and external) lie beneath. Ford v Ferrari is simply not just a sports movie, nor just a historical piece. Both of those sub-genres are ingrained in the film’s DNA, however, pumps energy into a heart full of conviction.
If it was not already clear that director James Mangold is a modern force majeure, one watch of Ford v Ferrari will do the trick. Before this film, the argument of giving him the title of auteur was strong. The filmmaker has consistently released stellar work such as Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and Logan. His latest work further solidifies the case for auteur status with sensible and thrilling craftsmanship. He manages to widen the spectrum of a film that otherwise, under different hands, could have only resonated with a smaller audience.
Fans of the historical subjects at hand and racing fans, in general, will find a lot to love. Bale and Damon both have enough talent to make any trip to the theater worth it. Their chemistry feels authentic and never takes viewers out of the moment. Films that are historical retellings can often make audiences feel like they are simply watching reenactments instead of worthwhile portrayals. Director Mangold has experience in dunking this criticism (see Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash) and it is no different here. Bale and Damon give service to Miles and Shelby’s legacies while still adding their personal flairs.
Those familiar with Mangold’s filmography will also find lots to unpack. The atmosphere and dramatic tones he builds are instantly recognizable. His methods of adding memorable levity trace back to previous works. Just like his best films, his admiration and care for the subject matter are also visible onscreen. Still, Ford v Ferrari presents new blessings to the Mangold canon. The visuals are on a different scale from anything he has done. This is his sixth collaboration with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and it could not result in a more engrossing experience for the eyes. One constantly feels transported into a race car with full depth of field. Combine that with some notable and engaging sound mixing, and one gets material worthy of an IMAX screening.
Regardless of all these superb qualities, the film’s greatest triumph is being as highly accessible as possible. One does not need to be a fan of racing, cars, or the real people involved to resonate with the ingrained humanity. The story of Le Mans ’66 should not only be revered by sports fans but by anyone who has ever pursued a dream through sweat and vigor. Passion endures even through the harshness and unfairness of life. Mangold puts this to screen and guides viewers with such earnestness leading to one of the most elaborate dramas of the year.
The only minor downfalls of the film are brought by the commonalities of being based on real events. Putting Miles and Shelby into consideration, the film has to start in a place where audiences can easily jump on without knowing them. Audiences then have to jump off at the end feeling like they have known them for years. This story also features lots of moving parts and key players thus putting pressure on the narrative structure. The final result is still a fantastic film, but the first act does take a moment to find its groove after all the establishment and the film ends leaving some strings untied. Despite one rich callback, the beginning and end do not exactly feel like complementing bookends.
Ford v Ferrari proves that adult non-fiction dramas are still viable for blockbuster status. Such a vision would not have been possible without big studio support. The successes of this film are sure to be noted by the industry at large. Mangold’s theatre experience will draw one in for the thrills of the race track, but make them stay for the compelling human spirit. Doubters be warned, the talent behind this film can do no worse.
Ford v Ferrari is currently out in theaters!