Ford v Ferrari
Ford vs. Ferrari is the latest historical drama recreating a famous sporting rivalry for the big screen. It is a compelling, if somewhat simplified, effort to show how two legends of racing made their mark on history.
Recreating history in the feature film format can be difficult. Real life, after all, is rarely as exciting as what we are used to seeing on the big screen. Filmmakers tackling these types of stories invariably face a difficult decision; side more towards historical accuracy and risk making a boring movie, or embellish the drama in a way that is more consistent with mainstream cinema expectations. Just last year, award-nominated films such as Green Book, BlackKklansman, and The Favorite have all faced varying levels of controversy based on their respective filmmaker’s approach to this dilemma.
Ford v Ferrari is the latest film in such a position. This film details the efforts by the Ford Motor Company to shed its stodgy image at the beginning of the 1960’s by developing more exciting cars. Towards this goal, Ford tries to buy out Ferrari, but their offer is rudely rejected. Offended, Henry Ford II decides Ford must develop their own car to beat Ferrari where they are the most successful, at the 24 Hour of Le Mans race. Ford hires sports car builder Carroll Shelby to oversee the program, and Shelby brings along his friend/racer Ken Miles to assist in that effort.
If you know your history, you know what ultimately happens. If you know your history, you will also know that the events depicted in the film are not entirely consistent with how they happened in real life. Ford vs. Ferrari takes the “cliff-notes” approach to recreating history. The audience gets the overall idea, and most of the complexities along the way are smoothed out for simplicity’s sake. And so, history buffs and fans of motor sport may feel a bit let down by how the film chooses to recreate history. But judge the film by itself, and the premise is at the very least compelling.
So, while the “historical” part of this historical drama leaves a bit to be deserved, it makes up for it with the drama and flair. That starts with the subject of the film itself, the cars. For any gear heads out there, you will not be disappointed. The film does a tremendous job of revisiting some of the most iconic cars in history. Nearly every scene has a car involved in some way, and they aren’t there just for eye candy. The film really does celebrate the legacy of these beautiful machines and the people who developed and drove them.
The heart of the film is really the relationship between Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Ken is an expert mechanic and driver, but he is also a father and a husband. Fallen on tough times, he jumps on the opportunity to work with Shelby on his new project. However, Ken isn’t the easiest person to get along with. Despite his mechanical aptitude and skills behind the wheel, he often speaks his mind. This ultimately puts Shelby in a tough position where he is caught between doing what the Ford executives want, and what Miles insists is best for the project. Most of the time, what Ford wants is the opposite of what Miles suggests.
The clashes ultimately lead to Ford asking Miles to leave the project. But as a friend who values Miles’ capabilities, Shelby comes through for him. He takes desperate action by making a risky proposition in order to keep Miles on the team. This is one of the moments where the film really shines. It shows that behind the herculean effort being undertaken by these men, there are going to be disagreements and difficult moments. In addition to the technological challenges they face, there are interpersonal ones. How we respond to all challenges, not just the big ones, is what defines us.
I would say the overarching theme of the film, like most sports movies, is overcoming adversity. So, yeah, it isn’t exactly introducing new concepts, but it does offer some variety as compared to what we typically can expect in these types of underdog stories. For example, at one point in time, Miles is not chosen to be one of the teams drivers, which obviously upsets him. He spends the night of the race alone working in his garage, pretending not to care. His wife arrives as a surprise to help distract him. In that moment, Miles is only focused on her as she changes the radio and they both dance in each other's arms. I appreciated how this film gave us that little glimpse of Miles as a person, not just a race car driver.
The cast certainly does a lot to instill a sense of humanity into these famous figures from history. At the top of the list is Christian Bale as Ken Miles. Bale is frequently great in his performances, and this one is another solid entry into his filmography. Bale manages to bring the type of weariness to Miles which we see in many headstrong trailblazers, but through it all he never loses his sense of inspiration and enthusiasm for racing. In this performance, Bale is not as transformative as he has been in years past, but certainly is not forgettable. Opposite him, Matt Damon portrays Carol Shelby as a man driven by his passions, but not afraid to admit his own shortcomings. Again, the friendship with Ken Miles is what drives the film and in that vein his chemistry with Bale is good.
Ford v Ferrari has one advantage over other historical recreations in that a large portion of the film is spent with the recreation of exciting races. It sprinkles these moments evenly throughout, and each one seems like a moment for the characters to prove themselves once again. The drama builds up each time as well, with each victory comes a new challenge. Visually the film brings these races to life, through both sound and vision. The roar of the engines of the cars is loud and proud. But the cinematography really brings out the detail. We see the dirt and grit. When its raining we feel cold, when the sun is out and we see the heat lines coming off the blacktop we feel hot.
But while no minute detail is overlooked regarding the film’s production, I couldn’t help but be hoping for a bit more from the script. For one, it spends so much time on the actual races it feels like the narrative is literally racing to catch up in between. The efforts to fill in those details are missing the benefit of time to develop organically, which results in a film that doesn’t feel as authentic as it could. I think the filmmaker’s choice to focus on the relationship between Shelby and Miles is both a blessing and a curse. Rather than just focus on one of them, the film doesn’t feel like it has enough time to do justice to both of them.
Still, this is the type of criticism I would expect to have for this type of film. Despite being a historical drama, it isn’t necessarily supposed to be completely realistic and true to those people it depicts. Instead, the filmmakers only have a few hours to convey the feel of this moment in history - the scope of the challenges and the fortitude it required to overcome them. Impressive performances from the cast certainly help in that regard. But it is through action-packed race scenes where Ford v Ferrari really hits its stride. By putting its audience into these iconic cars, they can experience the implications and emotion first hand. This allows for a better appreciation of this moment in history, and in my mind that makes the film victorious.
What's Bad: Takes a few shortcuts through history, script tends to jump around, it isn't trying to convey anything you haven't experienced in other movies before.