Ford v Ferrari

fvfChristian Bale should lighten up more often. Usually he plays dark or tormented or both, but in Ford v Ferrari, as ace car racer Ken Miles, he literally sings a ditty called “I’m Happy” twice, and he looks it — he isn’t just singing it ironically. Both times, Ken is behind the wheel, where he feels most alive. Bale is in skinny mode (as was the actual Ken Miles), but his color is good, he has a robust laugh, and he enjoys a warm and healthy bond with his young son Peter (Noah Jupe) and with his wife Mollie (Caitríona Balfe) — the latter knows him better than anyone and won’t put up with whatever crap he might shovel out.

Ford v Ferrari, make no mistake, is nothing revolutionary. It does nothing unexpected; even its twists follow in the footsteps of earlier films. But it’s an increasingly rare example of non-franchise entertainment for adults, it’s carpentered extremely well (its dialogue isn’t always fresh, but as William Goldman said, screenplays are structure), and it offers the sort of generous, heedless fun that only a big studio movie can. Essentially, it’s a buddy film; the other buddy is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer retired due to a bum ticker and cooling his heels designing and manufacturing high-performance cars. Carroll and Ken are part of the brotherhood of speed, the fast company. They respect each other, they yell and throw things at each other, they love each other.

If this movie and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were shorter (both clock in at north of two and a half hours), they might make a good bromance double feature. Whereas Quentin Tarantino meditated on toxic masculinity, though, FvF director James Mangold would like you to consider nontoxic masculinity. Ken couldn’t be a more acceptable male, even for the mid-‘60s; he generally defers to his more grounded wife. Carroll, by contrast, seems to have no home life at all. (The real Shelby was married seven times, and was in the midst of his seventh divorce when he died in 2012, at 89.) Both men are recruited by the Ford Motor Company to make their brand sexier (a Lee Iacocca brainstorm) by building and driving a car that can dethrone the insurgent but insolvent Ferrari at Le Mans.

I don’t know or care how closely the script (by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, building on an earlier Jason Keller draft) sticks to real events. It’s a cracking story beautifully told. I don’t begrudge it its status as a Best Picture nominee; indeed, it may be the most purely, uncomplicatedly enjoyable of the nine finalists. But back to nontoxic masculinity: our heroes don’t enter into Ford’s agenda for the competition. They’ve won enough. They only have something to prove to themselves. Now, this might sound perfectly banal, and on one level it is. But it’s accomplished with such free-flowing good feeling and wit, and it knows so well that we instinctively lean towards people of great intelligence and acumen, that the tropes are just road markers that we expect and want to be there. There, though, the Tarantino likeness ends; there’s nobody of complexity and shaky self-worth like Rick Dalton, who needs a massacre to put him back on top. Ford v Ferrari is almost Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with two Cliff Booths.

Damon, though at times dipping perilously close to his wry Matthew McConaughey impression, invests Carroll Shelby with regret tempered by gratitude that Carroll can still be part of the brotherhood by making his brothers great cars. Carroll has to deal with the corporate suits, typified by blustering Tracy Letts as Henry Ford “the second” (who nevertheless gets a redemptive moment) and oily Josh Lucas as Ford PR man Leo Beebe. Ken Miles, the amiable no-nonsense Brummie, tends to respond to authority with a cheerful two-finger salute. Together these men — workin’ men with grease under their fingernails — grumble about the home office but stride forward to get it done. There was a time this movie would have been the big hit of the year and won all the trophies, and during that same time I would have pointed out its familiarity with much more disdain than I feel now, when a film about the professionalism and decency of grown-ups seems to paint a richer, sunnier fantasy world than anything dreamed up by Disney or Stan Lee.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, sports

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