Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) appears on screen for less than 10 minutes in a film that bears his last name. James Mangold’s new racing epic may be called Ford v Ferrari but the famous Italian super car designer is hardly the foil this title would seem to indicate. Instead the real battle taking place is between bureaucracy and individuality.
Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to defeat the dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. In reality though the rivalry between Ferrari and Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) is just the background for a tale about Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon,) Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and the internal roadblocks they faced creating a car to compete with Ferrari.
We are first introduced Shelby, a former racing champion turned sports car designer after a heart condition forced him into an early retirement from driving. Next we meet Miles, a down on his luck amateur driver whose short fuse has held him back from truly breaking through in the racing world. Both men are driven by a burning desire to be the best and thrive on competition, both have found success by charting their own paths.
Both Bale and Damon capture that desire in different ways and each will likely generate significant Oscar buzz. Bale endows Ken Miles with a particular erraticism. The performance is unpredictable, you never know quite how Miles will respond to any given situation, but at the same time it’s massively entertaining. Damon’s Caroll Shelby is played with a lot more restraint. You can feel the competitive fire that’s still burning within being moderated by a man who knows he needs to placate his corporate benefactors.
Contrast these two independent firebrands with the company that tasks them with building a race car. Ford, of course, is a company famous for its uniformity. 60-odd years after the assembly line revolutionized production, the company that pioneered it has turned into a corporate assembly line with layers and layers of bureaucracy. The combination was bound to create friction.
And friction it does create. Ford is uncomfortable with Ken Miles representing them despite him being their best driver and thus best chance to win Le Mans. Miles too doesn’t want to moderate himself to be more acceptable in the eyes of Ford. Stuck between this rock and hard place is Caroll Shelby, who understands that this race is a tightrope he can only walk if he has both Ford’s backing and Miles’s skill.
Every step of the way is a battle for Shelby and Miles. In more than a few ways their dynamic with Ford represents the inherent struggle for studio filmmakers, perhaps more specifically for Mangold himself. As the top of the box office has been reduced to nothing but squeezing IP, the formula has shifted for studios. Like big companies, Ford v Ferrari backer Fox — now Disney — have to concern themselves more with the risk of their theatrical releases. Better to put out a film with low upside than one that might bomb.
This dynamic puts more creative directors in a tough spot. Refusal to completely toe the company line got Edgar Wright removed from Ant Man, it forced Lord and Miller off of Solo. All this makes Mangold a rare creature in Hollywood. With films like Walk the Line, Logan and now Ford v Ferrari to his name, he’s one of only a handful of directors who have worked within the studio system to consistently create movies that feel truly exciting and compelling.
Mangold’s version of Caroll Shelby can be seen as his cinematic analog. Like Shelby, Mangold has had to juggle his ambition with the desires of the hire ups of the company for which he’s working. In the end both Shelby and Mangold prove that it is possible to create something exciting despite the bureaucratic corporate system, but only in the right hands.
7/10. Ford v Ferrari uses a story of classic Americana to highlight the battle of creatives and bureaucrats.
If you’re interested in more Ford v Ferrari discussion, check out the November 20th episode of Spinning the Reel