Telluride: Sasha Stone reviews Ford v Ferrari
Ford v Ferrari has had its world premiere in Telluride. Having an expansive studio pic like this kick off the festival is a powerful reminder of what big studios can do when at their best, this amid a sea of independents that can often dominate festival season. Christian Bale and Matt Damon play two giants of the automotive industry whose friendship eventually led to a showdown at Le Mans. Naturally the film is about car racing, specifically about what makes a great driver and a winning racing team versus an ordinary effort. It turns out that what makes anyone great at anything is usually that they are doing it not for the money, not for the prizes, but for the pure love of the thing.
Likewise, the best films are made for the pure love of the thing, as are the best performances. Here we get to witness that elusive animal seen all too rarely these days: a studio film that tells an intimate story of love and friendship that also delivers epic thrills that mainstream audiences crave. Big budget movies this elaborate that don’t have protagonists who come from other planets find are hard to make past the pitch stage, much less get made and released in theaters. Ford v Ferrari is the kind of movie that used to have millions people lining up to see it, and if it catches fire the way it should, it will likely be collecting major accolades at the end of the year.
Directed by James Mangold, from a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, Ford v Ferrari crackles with dry humor as it tells a story that might not have seemed all that exciting on the page. Ford Motor Company, managed by Henry Ford II (a very funny and stodgy Tracy Letts), wants to be known as a company that makes fast cars, so they hire Carroll Shelby (Damon) to race Le Mans in hopes of beating the current champion of speed, Ferrari.
The conflict arises when Shelby wants the driver to be Ken Miles (Bale), whereas Ford wants someone who is more of a “team player,” as in, “you do what we tell you to do.” But it is precisely the same quality in Miles that thinks for himself that makes him such a great driver. They can put anyone behind the wheel and teach them how to drive. But to drive like THAT requires something extra. That something extra turns out not to be so corporate friendly.
William Goldman once described great storytelling as something that the thing you expect to happen, but not in the way that you expect it. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t step outside the formula of this kind of story: you know which points it has to hit and hit those points it does. But the mechanics of the plot doesn’t even matter because it is such a joy to watch a film that revels in spectacular racing sequences as well as careening through intimate scenes between Miles, his wife, and his son. Mangold isn’t here to show off or reinvent the wheel, but to tell a good story. And tell a good story he does.
With gorgeous cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, a propulsive score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, and a kick-ass sound design team, we are swept up in the world of racing very fast cars and into the minds of the men crazy enough to get behind the wheel. So much of the joy of this movie is simply watching Miles’ son (an excellent Noah Jupe) watch his father race. His wife (Caitriona Balfe) doesn’t have much to do, but is probably the one wife in a movie like this that isn’t discouraging her husband from doing the one thing he most loves to do.
The acting ensemble is a tight cluster of top notch turns, but the film likely belongs to Christian Bale. Last seen gaining weight and losing his soul to play Dick Cheney, here Bale shape shifts yet again to a gaunt frame, this time as Ken Miles, a family man who knows cars and racing more than anyone. There isn’t a second of this film that we don’t believe he’s really that guy behind the wheel, grinding gears, pedal to the metal, lapping his challengers. The chemistry between Bale and Damon is what makes the movie move the way it does, along with the script that gives them ample opportunity to spar. All the same, it’s when Bale is alone in the race car figuring out how to win and survive where the film really sings.
Ford v Ferrari is a celebration of the kind of film that only a deep-pocket American studio can make. Big story, big film shoots, big stars, and all must be seen a big screen. At some point in our cloudy past, big studios seemed to give up on the thing they do best. Like Henry Ford II, they wanted to win, but they became afraid to take chances. Why risk millions on an unpredictable unknown quantity that has no pre-awareness, no brand, no origin story, no prequel? Why trust that audiences today might still want to see what audiences have always wanted to see? It costs too much, it risks too much.
But here, with James Mangold’s very fine film Ford v Ferrari, we have proof that when a gamble comes up aces, it pays off big time. The result is the kind of movie that audiences can love but forgot how to love because they rarely get to see them anymore. Movies by great directors demand to be seen as big and wide as possible, especially when you get your money’s worth. From vivid personal joys and confrontations to exceptional, breathtaking fast cars zooming around race tracks, Mangold gives us what we paid to see.