' ' Cinema Romantico: Ford v Ferrari

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Ford v Ferrari

More than likely it was mere coincidence, but Ray McKinnon, in playing Motorsports engineer Phil Remington in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari”, so closely resembles the late Sam Shepard, in appearance and laconic dialect, that it feels deliberate, a nod to the man who played Chuck Yeager in 1982 “The Right Stuff.” Director Philip Kaufman’s rendering of the Gemini project, after all, was bookended by Yeager, the decline of American individualism the point as much as the race to the moon. And that makes “Ford v Ferrari” something like a spiritual heir to “The Right Stuff” as Ford’s victory in 1966’s 24 Hours at Le Mans auto race is portrayed less in a triumphant light than like the sun setting on rule-breaking self-reliance. Mangold evokes the latter in a shot of auto man extraordinaire Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), whom Ford hires to help win Le Mans, giving an against-the-grain speech at a company event as the sun literally sets behind him, casting fading light through the closed counter of a giant Ford Motor block letter R just over his shoulder.

That’s why the title “Ford v Ferrari” is a misnomer. Though the latter Italian car company is integral, the immovable object that Ford must overcome to earn victory at Le Mans, so too is Ford immovable where its own people are concerned. Though there is an early scene in which Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) stands in his company’s manufacturing hall, his hundreds of laborers below are presented as mere extensions of the Deuce’s ego. No, in Mangold’s telling, “Ford v Ferrari” is a showdown between the smug Ford Suits gathered around a boardroom table and the modern-day cowboys, Carroll and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British mechanic and driver that Carroll brings on to drive at Le Mans, holding court among themselves at a diner booth.

Carroll literally is a kind of cowboy, sporting a ten-gallon hat, accentuated by Damon’s accent, suggesting an homage to young and utterly unamused Tommy Lee Jones even as Damon allows a little more amusement to shine through, evinced in the grins he often sports when Ken is browbeating him about one thing or another. Indeed, these moments of hectoring underline how Carroll excels at keeping his cool, working his gum as he works out assorted difficult details out in his mind. Ken, on the other hand, is all about ruffling feathers, and that’s how Bale plays him, jutting out his jaw in nearly every scene like he’s daring you – like he’s willing you – to stay something stupid.

Yet if Carroll is a man alone, Ken has a wife and son, who exist mostly to increase those ever-pesky stakes, underlining both a need to support them by making money and what he risks behind the racing wheel. His spouse, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), is the one who takes a visit from the IRS placing her husband’s repair shop in financial straits, and she’s the one whose entire job kept off screen keeps them afloat, transforming her into nothing more than the traditional cinematic role of Supportive Spouse regardless of Bale and Balf’s convincing give-and-take. Mollie’s most emblematic scene is not really even her scene at all – that is, sitting off to the side in a lawn chair while Carroll and Ken comically brawl.

That dumb machismo is telling: this is movie belongs to the guys, their fixation with cars and its attending language. If Carroll and Ken’s natural dispositions might frequently place them at stubborn odds, they still operate on the same wavelength. In the aftermath of Ken taking a spin in some new souped-up Ford, he and Carroll virtually revel in going over the checklist of where the car goes wrong, a moment where “Ford v Ferrari” shrewdly knows we need not know their code to understand what they’re saying, the sing-song, finishing-each-other-sentences cadence letting us know they are always one step ahead.

Letts gives a magnificent performance as Ford II. Smart enough to know he doesn’t need to do much, he simply looms in most frames, arms crossed and frowning, the camera looking up, before he eventually releases all the air from his turn, demonstrating that even if he is in charge, he gets run by those around him. That includes Carroll, of course, like a magnificently composed sequence where he sits in the middle of Ford II’s office, men looming in front of him and behind him, and yet gleefully, brilliantly plays them all for stooges, metaphorically leaving these lackeys in the dust by earning the boss man’s council over near the window, everyone else dropped from the frame. But it also includes The Deuce’s number two, Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas as a true leech, always looking at the boss out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge his reaction even as he’s guiding him. And Beebe’s ideas for who should drive and how the race should be run all tie back to the “Ford Man” brand, one which Ken’s cavalier image struggles to fit.

No matter how compelling Mangold renders the conflict between corporate and these cowboys, alas, he struggles to elevate the racing scenes. The genuine endurance test nature of Le Mans never comes through, only alluding to Ken’s apparent penchant for warding off sleep with an almost omnipresent tin cup of coffee. The linear editing of the auto races, meanwhile, provides us a crisp, clear-eyed perspective but at the sake of forging a true at-the-wheel point-of-view, failing to get inside Ken’s headspace and visually convey what makes him such a driving genius. Only the opening scene, a flashback to Carroll’s own Le Mans win, embodies his words equating auto racing with “a body moving through space and time” more than a car. As such, the anti-climactic 1966 Le Mans conclusion plays not only like a grudging company man adhering to his contract but a virtuoso threatening to leave us unknowing mortals behind coming back down to Earth.

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