As the franchise grinder attracts both upstart and stalwart filmmakers, the old phrase “one for them, one for me” has taken on new life. 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival alone saw three films premiere from directors making something a little more personal after helming a giant studio tentpole. Both Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit saw directors free to take risks and push boundaries with greater funding and less corporate interference. James Mangold, fresh off an Oscar nomination in 2017 for his work on the Logan script, goes in a slightly different direction with his follow-up, Ford v Ferrari. Rather than unleashing his craziest idea into the marketplace, Mangold uses his clout to make the kind of mid-budget adult drama that’s become an endangered species thanks to the streaming revolution and tentpoles dominating the big screen.
Ford v Ferrari feels tailor-made for Sunday afternoons on cable TV as an alternative to dad watching the Golf Channel. And that’s a compliment, not merely damning with faint praise! Mangold succeeds at recreating a comforting retro feel with Ford v Ferrari. It’s as if the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” committed itself to film. Maybe that’s somewhat attributable to the fact that essentially all but one speaking role belongs to a white male. The one exception? Catriona Balfe as the film’s token TOWASC (an acronym coined by pop culture commentator Louis Virtel that stands for “There’s One Woman and She’s Concerned”).
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The myopic treatment of women in Ford v Ferrari makes temporal sense — it was 1966, after all — and thematic sense. Mangold puts masculinity under a microscope from his film’s earliest scenes. Ford v Ferrari begins with a scene I saw play out in three separate films at TIFF this year: a doctor tells an incredibly resistant man that his body no longer functions as peak capacity and thus must limit his activity in a field that defines his identity. Here, it’s Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby being told that he can no longer race due to a heart condition.
Shelby pivots into car design and construction following his sidelining injury, but there’s no shortage of adrenaline in his life. He’s tasked with designing a car for Ford that’s capable of beating Ferrari at the 24-hour endurance race in Le Mans, a course the Italian carmaker dominated for years. Shelby gets the call from Ford’s vice-president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) not because it’s a natural outgrowth of the company’s business goals or the next step in their product development. No, Ford — specifically Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) — undertakes this potentially foolhardy task because Ferrari publicly humiliated them by using the American automotive giant to leverage a higher asking price from their would-be corporate suitors. Men of that generation simply did not take such insults sitting down. They were affronts to their very masculinity.
The company’s resolve to achieving their desired outcome faces significant strain when Shelby insists on an erratic but excellent driver to take the wheel. Bale, at his loosest since winning an Oscar for The Fighter in 2010, makes all the concerns over the hot-headed British racer Ken Miles feel both validated and a trifle silly. From his earliest moments on screen where he launches a wrench towards Shelby’s head, it’s clear Miles will accept an order about as readily as he accepts feedback — which is to say, not at all. Yet to pull off a task as unlikely as beating Ferrari, everyone reluctantly accepts that they must find a way to make the partnership work. No one finds this more taxing than Shelby, forced into the paradoxical position of taking a backseat in order to reclaim the former glory of the pole position.
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There’s a lot of building, testing and tweaking in the first half of Ford v Ferrari as the impossible becomes at least improbable. In this section of the film, it plods along a bit like a teenager behind the wheel unsure of how much pressure to apply on the break or gas pedals. The vehicle is not sputtering by any means, but the experience does get a little jerky. The film really hits its stride once the drama centers less around the creation of the car and more around the shifting dynamic between Shelby and Miles. Mangold grants a lot of room to Damon and Bale to deliver true movie star turns. There’s undeniable character work from Damon’s accent (significantly improved from True Grit) to Bale’s lanky physicality, yet Ford v Ferrari gets plenty of mileage on the basis of their sheer charisma and screen presence.
Mangold, meanwhile, gets a victory lap of his own in the film’s final stretch when the rubber must finally meet the road at Le Mans. Everything builds to the race, and the extended sequence does not disappoint. It’s equal parts visual and sonic spectacle as well as human drama. The racing provides the precise and visceral thrill that’s worth the price of admission, yet Mangold never loses sight of how this day-long event brings tensions between Shelby, Miles and the larger Ford corporation to a boil. How they react to each other makes for equally as compelling cinema as anything taking place on the track.
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It’s here, too, where the subtext of Ford v Ferrari becomes undeniable. Throughout the film, friction exists between the team who’s out on the track making the car and the suits in a boardroom at Ford who act like they know what’s best. While much in the way of demeanor and outlook divides Shelby and Miles, they can at least bond over the fact that they are practitioners, not observers like Iacocca or the pompous head of racing, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). They make decisions based on practicality because they need to get results. Beebe calls shots based on what’s going to make for the best photo op.
Mangold has worked within the studio system for decades now and has seen instances of getting to make a film his way (Logan) and its undesirable inverse (The Wolverine). Nothing about Ford v Ferrari reeks of studio interference, perhaps owing to the fact that the script hews so closely to screenwriting conventions that worked well for decades. Yet the film entered production just as 20th Century Fox, who financed the film, entered the serious stage of acquisition by Disney, who will now distribute it. Given the anxiety many filmmakers express over the rise of a potentially monopolistic force taking decisions out of the hands of artists, it does not feel out of the realm of possibility that Ford v Ferrari functions as sly commentary on why any craft belongs in the hands of craftspeople — not executive committees.
Maybe Ford v Ferrari will perform well at the box office over the Thanksgiving holiday in spite of its competition from fellow Mouse House release Frozen 2, defanging this subtext observed from the remove of the festival circuit. Yet, should the most apocalyptic of voices prove true about the decline in appetite for adult dramas, Mangold may have perfectly bottled the sound of the canary in the coal mine.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).