Review: Ford v Ferrari has great acting, dampened by predictable plot

by Willem Gerrish | 9/26/19 2:05am

It’s hard not to enjoy certain moments of pure thrill — the rapid descent of a rollercoaster, maybe, or a hard-won victory on the athletic field. Director James Mangold’s new film, “Ford v Ferrari,” draws upon one of such thrills: the roar and rush of high-speed driving. Shown at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts as part of the annual Telluride Film Festival screenings, “Ford v Ferrari” is a riveting piece of car-focused filmmaking wrapped up in an underwhelming but ultimately solid narrative envelope. 

I’ll start with the movie’s center of gravity: the cars. Mangold must be well aware of the fact that 1960s-era Ford GTs and Ferraris are magnificent works of machinery, since he does well by giving the audience ample moments of burning rubber and firing engines. The shots run the gamut from interior-facing images of the drivers’ faces to point-of-view shots of asphalt flying by underneath the car, and each is brought to life by the sounds — the screaming sounds of a car engine pushed over 6,000 revolutions-per-minute, rocketing the vehicle upwards of 200 miles-per-hour. It’s these sounds that stir you, so loud and assaulting that you begin to feel slightly uncomfortable but also riveted, consumed by the thrill in the moment. 

I applaud “Ford v Ferrari” for its ability to make each of its racing scenes as enthralling as the last, avoiding the monotony that anyone who’s tried to watch a NASCAR race from start to finish can attest to. Part of that intrigue comes from the impressive cinematography, allowing for fresh perspectives of the same basic activity. 

But it’s not just the racing, of course, that gives this movie its guts. Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the acting is phenomenal, with the two leads exhibiting the magnetism they have gained over decades in the industry. They play off each other like the veterans they are, engaging in a theatrical give-and-take that lights up the screen. Bale in particular continues to blow me away as he does in every role he takes, playing his character — a mercurial British driver named Ken Miles — with fire and grace. Damon’s role asks less of him — he plays Carroll Shelby, a legendary former race driver-turned-car designer — but he nonetheless hits all the right notes in a similarly impressive performance. 

While the cinematrography and energy of “Ford v Ferrari” is certainly riveting, I have to talk about the actual narrative of the film, which perhaps represents the movie’s biggest weakness. That isn’t to say it’s bad per se, but compared to the fiery qualities of the racing scenes and acting, the movie’s writing ends up in the back seat. 

As the film unfolds, Henry Ford, Jr. decides he wants Ford to enter the pantheon of legendary racing car companies like Porsche and, in particular, his rival company Ferrari, so he enlists Shelby to run Ford’s racing division and design and oversee the production of what eventually becomes the Ford GT40 racecar. Ford’s main goal is to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an endurance race that Ferrari has been winning handily in recent years. To achieve this task, Shelby takes on Ken Miles, a controversial but hyper-talented driver who worries Ford with his bad boy image but gets them undeniable results. 

The movie follows a basic plotline you’ve certainly seen before: a great idea leads to a major project — cue montages of car building and track driving — but then runs into adversity which is ultimately overcome in a triumphant conclusion. There is a lot more to the movie than that, including a touching subplot involving Miles’s family and a shocking development right before the end of the film, but its general path is relatively predictable and familiar. 

The good thing about this standard story arc is that it is executed well and is infused with enough excitement — the acting, the cars — to make it feel somewhat fresh and certainly worthwhile. And what I think the film comes down to is also something less saccharine than the typical value-of-human-interaction-and-devotion moral that subtexts so many cut-and-dry films of tribulations and success. At the heart of “Ford v Ferrari” is the idea that for certain men — like Miles and Shelby — driving a racecar is a pure human experience. As Shelby asserts in a well-written monologue that bookends the film, “there’s a point — 7000 RPM — where everything fades,” hinting at some elusive world of nirvana behind the wheel.

That idea of machine-assisted escapism is an attractive notion, and the film subtly supports it through its portrait of Miles, a man with a loving wife and child who ultimately feels at home when he’s alone and behind the wheel of a car roaring across the road. So while there’s a temptation to walk away from “Ford v Ferrari” feeling like family and friendships were its most important elements, a careful viewer will notice that it’s not quite the case. The movie exalts driving as one of those thrills, few and far between, that drop the world behind and leave only a man in control of a machine, just “a body moving through space and time,” as Shelby says in the film. And that’s a powerful message that audiences will be hard-pressed to ignore.