Looking over the resume of James Mangold the only pattern you will find is that there is no pattern. His first film, 1995’s Heavy which starred Liv Tyler and Debbie Harry, was such a quiet character study that it was almost surprising when a character spoke.
It’s a beautiful movie that made little money, but thanks to wonderful reviews it put Mangold on the map. Two years later he followed up with Copland, a Sidney Lumet-esque police corruption drama that felt like an homage to the cinema of the 70s. It’s a solid film full of characters with bad haircuts and bellies that have seen too many doughnuts. It also reminded people that, when called upon, Sylvester Stallone was capable of being a very fine actor.
Mangold continued to genre hop after Copland with the Winona Ryder drama Girl, Interrupted, the time travel romcom Kate & Leopold starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, and then Identity, an ensemble horror film with a twist led by John Cusack. While those three films have their fans (and Girl scored Angelina Jolie an Oscar), none of them were major hits either critically or commercially. It wouldn’t be until 2005 – a full decade into his career – that Mangold would garner significant success with critics and at the box office with the Johnny Cash biopic, I Walk The Line, headed by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter.
His following film, the western 3:10 To Yuma was also a solid success. In fact, many critics found it to be superior to the Glenn Ford-starring original from 1957. Knight & Day, the rare Tom Cruise misfire came next in 2010. Then three years later Mangold entered the Marvel world with The Wolverine, the second of three solo films based on the beloved X-Men character.
I roll out this laundry list of films simply to point out that if you are looking for a definable James Mangold imprint on his cinematic endeavors, you are unlikely to find one. But that doesn’t mean that his work lacks artistry.
His 2017 film, Logan, was a remarkable advance in the superhero movie genre: full of pathos, (relatively) real-world consequences, and genuine grace. It was also bold enough to explicitly parallel its storyline to the classic western, Shane, and good enough to pull it off.
As a director, he harkens back to filmmakers like John Sturges or Richard Brooks. Craftsmen who took on different genres and adapted their skill set to each individual project. You could say they were professionals.
Which brings me to Mangold’s latest film, Ford v Ferrari, the story of how an American automaker took on the dominant European racing team and beat them at their own game. It’s a muscular film with three wonderful performances by Matt Damon as the car’s designer, Christian Bale as the race car driver, and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford Jr.
Full disclosure: I am not a car guy. I once went to the drag races and swore I would never put my ears through such a thing again. So, it’s not like I was in the tank for the story of a corporate executive putting millions of dollars into a race car and the grease monkeys who fulfilled his vision. But here’s the thing: when a movie is so well made and legitimately interested in its own subject matter (not always the case), it’s hard not to get drawn in. That’s exactly what happens in Ford v Ferrari.
All three men at the center of the film (Damon, Bale, and Letts) are plagued by doubts and imperfections; it’s just that they try very hard to hide them from the people around them. Mangold makes sure you see it, though. Whether it’s Letts waffling over Ford’s direction, Damon’s self doubt, or Bale’s inability to get out of his own way, their flaws are not hidden from the viewer. These are vulnerable men working in a realm where the slightest vulnerability is seen as weakness.
Of course, in a film about race cars, it’s essential that the racing scenes be exciting and effective. Always a skilled technical director, Mangold is even better than you might expect here. Not only do the racetrack sequences feel authentic and thrilling, the danger of that thrill is constantly felt. There are times when I could almost smell the gasoline and feel the rumble from my theater seat.
More than anything though, Ford v Ferrari is a good story, extremely well told. Our founder here at Awards Daily, Sasha Stone, refers to Ford v Ferrari as a “Movie Movie.” Which I take to mean a movie that sets out to entertain you— to give you a great night out.
Ford v Ferrari does that in spades. It reminds you that there all kinds of reasons to go to the movies. Some of us cinephile types like to think of ourselves as above this sort of thing— as if the only movies worth seeing are the ones with the potential to change your life. Is it possible we underestimate the value of simply being entertained? Of having a moment to set our cares aside and be told a good story?
That’s what Ford v Ferrari does at a master class level. As I said earlier, Mangold doesn’t have a singular artistic signature. James Mangold is a professional filmmaker— a superior one— and Ford v Ferrari is the type of film that needed a strong director who would not get in the way of a good story. The studio made the perfect choice in James Mangold.
I strongly encourage the Academy to consider him in the category of best director. Ford v Ferrari is a director’s film in every possible way. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.