The initial reflexive response to James Mangold’s wannabe epic about the Ford Motor Company’s ambitious entry into the world of auto racing is that it’s late to the 60s nostalgia orgy. As could be predicted with such a high budget Hollywood project the production design is immaculately retrograde, though as is also often the case with high budget Hollywood projects the verisimilitude is sometimes off-putting: the colors a bit too period-bright, the haircuts creepily perfect. What made Mad Men (and, to a lesser extent, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood) transcend this aesthetic was the way the scripts buried beneath the surface gleam for something that felt real about the time, especially if you lived through it. Ford vs Ferrari, however, simply wants you to bathe in the promise of American exceptionalism, even if one of the main characters is a spiky Brit.
The film’s saving grace is the way it sends up the mid-century corporate culture that held sway at Ford, where the CEO scion (Tracy Letts) of its founder traded in all the macho one-upmanship that is now a mere cliche of the era. We learn that young people in the early 60s, despite the Beach Boys’ earnest entreaties, are not quite as enamored of the internal combustion engine as the media would have us think, though, in all fairness, the boomer generation is already starting to fade. Still, Henry Ford II thinks his cars need a rebranding and so decides to get into auto racing, an extremely expensive and elite club lorded over by Europeans, in particular the imperious Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). The two get into a trans-Atlantic pissing contest.
This development impacts Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former Le Mans driver turned custom car builder, hard, since he has been recruited by Ford to develop the race car it needs to prove it’s the greatest car company in the world. Mangold resists turning Shelby into a kind of “artist” and keeps him grounded in grease and chrome and the American Dream as defined by one’s traction on upward financial mobility. The irony is that Ford doesn’t think he’s being aggressive enough. In fact, his fierce independence grates on the top-down corporate structure, especially with regard to his choice of a driver for the car he’s building, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a transplanted Limey who runs his own repair shop in SoCal in order to fund his weekend racing gigs. The movie sets up these two men’s contentious bromance as the real conflict in the movie, but, given the tenor of the times—both are World War II veterans—there isn’t enough of a core difference between them to make the kind of impression Mangold strives for, unless you count Miles’ station wagon an affront to Shelby’s Porsche knockoff.
As can also be expected from such a big budget Hollywood project, the racing scenes are the best things in the movie, and do place the viewer smack dab in a different era, when gasoline was considered a boon to both civilization and a man’s sense of self worth. The women, meaning the wives of these two lead characters, are relagated to suffering over their respective partners’ mechanical obsessions, a trope that has aged so poorly that, even when it seems appropriate to propelling the story, can still feel insufferable. Ford vs Ferrari is exciting as it goes and its 152-minute run time never flags. But by the end you feel as if you’ve just barely gotten out of the 60s alive.
Opens Jan. 10 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).
Ford vs Ferrari home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation