Film & TV

Ford v Ferrari Makes Race-Car Movies Great Again

From left: Ray McKinnon, Jack McCullen, Matt Damon, and Christian Bale in Ford v. Ferrari (Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox)
An unusual Hollywood exception to the derision of American exceptionalism

There’s a MAGA moment in Ford v Ferrari when the British-immigrant auto mechanic and race-car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) stops being a loner and decides to be a team player. He slows down on the track to let the other American drivers on his team join him so they can cruise across the finish line together. This “bringing them in” scene turns out to be Miles’s undoing, relegating him to forgotten history, but it’s one of the few scenes in Ford v Ferrari that audiences unapologetically enjoy; they respond to it as part of their natural, national, car-culture heritage.

Conservatives should pay attention to any element in a Hollywood film that supports their political and moral beliefs. Ford v Ferrari provides that sustenance. Director James Mangold dramatizes the 1964 competition in the 24-hour race at Le Mans, distilled to a three-man alliance of Miles; his mentor, the veteran driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who had previously raced Le Mans in 1957; and entrepreneur Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). They bring the Ford Racing Team up to the level of its faster, sleekly engineered European contenders.

The America First implications of Ford v Ferrari can’t be ignored. After the big-screen spectacle and vibrant sound design of revved-up motors and cheering crowds, Mangold swerves into quasi-political points about character. His best scenes show the way ambitious men commit themselves. It’s not about “toxic masculinity,” as producer Jane Rosenthal described Scorsese’s The Irishman (to make it seem progressive). Instead, he revels in high-speed, high-pressure contexts where egotism, expertise, and privilege vie for domination.

Carroll had retired from racing for health reasons but comes alive when he challenges Ford for sponsorship. In turn, the industrialist commands the gladiator: “Go ahead, Carroll. Go to war!” Their jingoistic vernacular is personal.

Ford v Ferrari uses international corporate competition to extrapolate masculine rivalries. Overseeing the Ford Racing Team, Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe (both well cast) mediate between styles of white-collar and blue-collar masculinity. Beebe distrusts Miles as “too pure” and says that, as far as “marketing concerns,” his personality is “just not possible.” Later, Beebe smooths out his aggression, telling Carroll, “I hope the disagreement between us can be chalked up to natural red-bloodedness in the heat of battle.” This contrasts with the relationship between successful Carroll and struggling Miles, who bond against the inevitable antagonism they face: “Deep down they hate guys like you because you don’t think like them, act like them. Because you’re different.” The last American film to present work-world dynamics this clearly was Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

Brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote the remarkable script for the James Brown biopic Get On Up, bring British class consciousness to enhance this drama. No conventional Hollywood screenwriter would dare the scene where Carroll takes Henry Ford II for a race-track spin, and his benefactor finds the experience both scary and fulfilling. The imposing scion’s effusive tears convey recognizable humanity and sheer American gratitude.

Letts’s portrayal of a man who inherited WASP advantage goes beyond familiar sports-movie clichés. He’s a President Trump archetype presented with surprising ambivalence (like Brett Cullen in Joker) to pinpoint an unfamiliar, perhaps controversial, essence.

Okay, I write as a Detroit native who once exited the Motor City’s annual Auto Show, souvenirs in hand, and came face to face with Walter Reuther casually strutting by himself. He greeted me with “Hi, kid!” — to my awestruck gaze. My family worked in the auto factories, and I built plastic model cars from toy kits, so I’m already halfway into what Ford v Ferrari is about, yet I am compelled to note its faults.

Ford v Ferrari falters when it presumes “equal time” for Miles’s wife (Caitriona Balfe) in marital scenes that are more PC than credible. Good actors Damon and Bale let their own modern ambivalence get in the way. Damon’s cornpone impudence and Bale’s volatile temperament (turning himself into a wiry Pete Postlethwaite) don’t rise to a level of mythic authenticity. Once you imagine race-car enthusiasts Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in these roles, the movie crashes.

Car movies need more than visceral excitement, and although Ford v Ferrari features the pride of production, national representation, and performance (through the hierarchy of owners and risk-taking performers), it never quite grasps the aspirational aspect of American adventure that distinguished The Right Stuff or Tucker: A Man and His Dream (although the scene where Henry Ford II lifts off in a private helicopter at a crucial moment in the race says something real about how obligation meets privilege).

These days, Hollywood rarely takes notice of masculine, national competition without demeaning it. Ford v Ferrari is a period film. When it concentrates on aspects of American exceptionalism — the personal appreciation of how America once thought itself great — it reminds viewers of what pundits and anti-American politicians would have us forget.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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