Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: Ford v Ferrari
There’s something about cars that captures our imaginations. Maybe it’s the visceral sensation of speed, going as fast as possible while still tethered to the earth. Maybe it’s the raw grit of gears and oil, harking back to our primal roots in the blood and mud. Whatever it is, plenty of films have succeeded in transforming a simple race into a heart-pounding battle between titans of the track. And now with Ford v Ferrari, we’re seated front row to head-on collisions between more than just racers, but challenges between friends, businesses, ideologies, and even the notion of what it means to win. The powerhouse crew of director James Mangold and Oscar-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale bring forth the liveliest, most hilariously enjoyable drama of the year—watching cars drive in circles may never have been this much fun!
Mangold has become one of those directors I’ll follow no matter what. Outside of producing the two best Wolverine films to date, he’s proven his chops across genres with the likes of Cop Land, Walk the Line, Identity, and 3:10 to Yuma. What I love about his work is that he’s able to balance exciting action with both humor and those all-important, low-key dramatic moments that often make or break a film. And that’s precisely what he’s done here.
Ford v Ferrari is a delicate soup of characters, ideas, and conflicts, all boiling down to the love and rivalry between its two leads. Carroll Shelby (Damon) and Ken Miles (Bale) feel like an old married couple, griping and caterwauling at each other as often as breathing. But deep down, both understand that they need each other, not just to win but to survive. Neither suffers fools gladly, but Shelby understands the art of diplomacy in a way completely foreign to Miles, who’s acerbic defiance puts him at odds with just about everyone around him (including Shelby). The subsequent friction creates endless opportunities for not only dramatic conflict but for some outright hilarious gaffs and barbs—and Damon and Bale absolutely revel in it.
Bale, in particular, does what he does best, completely disappearing into his role. From the trailers, I expected a fairly straightforward portrayal of the typical curmudgeon who refuses to bend to any will other than his own and demands you either love him or hate him for it. While that’s certainly an aspect, I was taken aback by the layers of true warmth, sensitivity, and even understanding Bale brought to Miles. His moments with his wife and son are sweet and generous without ever sacrificing his edge. And while Bale didn’t make the sort of major physical transformation he’s often known for (though he did drop 70 lbs between Vice and this), he adds little touches—such as his craned, cocked noggin—that exudes his mastery of the craft. For my money, it’s a performance rivaling or exceeding anything he’s done before, and I fully expect another Oscar nom in a few months.
Damon’s no slouch himself, and paired against any other actor would have outshined them by megawatts. But with Bale, he stands toe-to-toe and measures up quite nicely (though I’ll give the edge to Bale). Shelby has that no-nonsense country-boy swagger that both commands and charms everyone around him. A brilliant former racer in his own right, he’s also a superior technician, demonstrating the insights and connections he exploits to elevate his company—as well as Ford—to the success it becomes. Damon plays out the confusion, stress, and pain of trying to keep everyone happy while staying true to himself and his values. With barely a look, he’s able to reflect and transition between all these complicated facets with the skill of a high-performance driver, keeping the movie on pace and knowing just where to give it the right kick into a new gear.
The pair don’t just react to each other, but feed off one another. The film centers on how their similarities and their differences fundamentally change them, despite their reluctance, and thus hinges on the chemistry between the actors. It’s not enough to just throw two alpha A-listers together, they have to get along; and fortunately, Damon and Bale meld beautifully, like they’ve known each other forever.
Which brings up another effective aspect. Mangold and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth seem to realize what all-too many storytellers don’t these days: the audience doesn’t necessarily need a ton of backstory or explanation to follow or feel the drama. We understand the history of these men through a few choice pieces of dialogue and the effectiveness of the actors. Likewise, in a film wrought with mechanical jargon about brake assemblies and hairpin turns, we’re given just the right amount of detail to keep even the most uninitiated on track. It’s some of the most efficient storytelling I’ve seen in quite a few years now and an absolute necessity given the massive amount of narrative covered.
That narrative goes far deeper than the trailers might suggest. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the film might spend more time in the boardroom than on the track, but in reality we’re given plenty of action to keep the adrenaline pumping. There are several races, not to mention test runs, to feed the speed junkie in you; and on the opposite end, there’s far more drama at stake than just who crosses the finish line first at Le Mans. The fact that real events provided so much of the dramatic fodder makes it all that more impressive, and the turns and monkey-wrenches thrown in provide a breadth of scope far beyond the track. In fact, the titular conflict between Ford and Ferrari is really nothing more than the impetus to stage the death throes of old ideas and conservative methods as innovations and sheer willful drive smash their way into the (then) modern age. There’s still something timely about all that, as well as seeing such a diverse ensemble coming together to realize that most American of ambitions: to prove oneself equal to the task.
Whether you’re a fan of automobiles and racing or not, Ford v Ferrari is packed so full of the best elements of cinema there’s no way you’ll leave the theatre feeling anything other than elation. The story is both classic and modern, reflecting themes of comradery, perseverance, and innovation while at its heart focusing on the personal triumphs and tragedies of two courageous men. Each performer is at their best—with a special nod to Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles—presenting a tour de force on screen to supplement the taut, engaging story. To me, the film was a throwback to the kind of movie-making we rarely see anymore: crowd-pleasing while never pandering, intelligent but never showing off, witty without being obnoxious. It’s all-around classy fare that’s fun for everyone and anyone looking for a good time at the movies. 2019 has been full of amazing contenders for great films, but I venture to say Ford v Ferrari may have just pulled into the lead.
YANG: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
PBS childhood heroes seem to be making something of a resurgence of late. Bob Ross’s glorious mane can be found adorning the aisles of stores near and far and on the t-shirts of kids too young to have ever seen him live. And likewise, that quintessential granddaddy of wholesomeness, Mister Rogers, is coming along right behind him. Why the sudden callback to these childhood role models? Perhaps it’s the recognition that in our increasingly polarized and too-often self-centered modern age, we need a gentle reminder of empathetic kindness, of what it means to live with and love our neighbor.
Last year’s award-winning documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dug deep into the man behind the sweater, exploring the mostly saintly but occasionally human aspects of Fred Rogers and his mission to bring understanding and respect for the emotional complexities of children. This year, no less than the venerable Tom Hanks slips into Rogers’ sneakers to dramatize the icon.
But audiences simply expecting a fictionalized account of the documentary will be in for a surprise.