The brand name battle that takes place within the title could be undermined by the more personal challenges of the film’s lead characters, but this is a muddle as well. Iacocca enlists former driver and current boutique owner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to create the car that can win Le Mans, and Shelby in turn recruits eccentric and unpredictable Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive it. The conflict between Ford and Ferrari is far off in the film’s future, but smaller conflicts constantly erupt between Shelby and Miles and between Shelby and weaselly Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Iacocca/Beebe, Shelby, and Miles represent a continuum of problem-solving and collaboration, with the Ford execs in complete corporate lockstep and Miles off in his own idiosyncratic world. Shelby plays referee between the two, and the film’s sympathies are most often with him as a man who is capable of building something, but not something so big that it becomes unwieldy and inhuman.
History being what it is, and unimaginative sports movies being what they are, Ford v Ferrari can only end with the Le Mans and Ford’s ultimate triumph. As Shelby pulls Ford and Miles closer to his golden mean, Miles can conceivably get there due to his not having shareholders and billions of dollars holding him in place. Miles adjusting towards Shelby entails making a self-effacing gesture towards a giant corporation, an entity incapable of making a similar adjustment. Again, none of the results that Ford v Ferrari celebrates are worth celebrating. Refusing to give the money-men the final victory is the choice put before Miles, and the film conforms to the need to have its protagonists go through a personal change. Forget whatever Miles should do in a given situation, what represents dramatic movement, no matter how unsatisfying. Public submission to a corporation is the complementary victory in Ford v Ferrari, and Mangold doesn’t inject any bile into the proceedings to undercut the final scenes.
If the impetus and the takeaway for Ford v Ferrari are mystifying, the execution is on surer footing. Damon and Bale are both atypical movie stars who make bold choices, and their chemistry as coworkers and pseudo-rivals is compelling to watch. A meaningless grown-man scuffle between the two doesn’t impact the story or the stakes at all, but it underlines the unseriousness and playfulness of the film in a way that the rooting interests hint at, like this looks serious from the outside but we’re really just throwing loaves of white bread at each other. Letts is a can’t-miss actor, instilling small parts with nuance and meaning. A Captain-Phillips-esque outburst from him makes the film worth seeing, and sells the power of the machines better than the filmmaking. The racing action isn’t up to the standard set by something like Ron Howard’s Rush, as Ford v Ferrari is more interested in the behind-the-scenes work as opposed to the driver’s seat, but Mangold at least makes sure the film rumbles and vibrates with verve and power.
It was a GM executive who equated corporate success with American success, but one could easily imagine those words in the mouth of a character in Ford v Ferrari. Maybe this is just where I am now, far away from easily rooting for success by the country or its flag-waving surrogates. Strip away the inherent nationalism of the film and I still wouldn’t be comfortable cheering on boardroom atta-boys, especially when the competitor literally makes their products by hand. I don’t get Ford v Ferrari, but then, I’m not a dad. Maybe spawning children is a prerequisite to getting this kind of movie. C-