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.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a story about Mister Rogers, not really. In actual fact, it’s the story of what I would call “The Mister Rogers Effect.” While Rogers plays a critical and significant role in the film, the story actually focuses on the character of Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys) and his struggles to overcome his pain and anger toward his estranged father, Jerry (played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper). When Lloyd is begrudgingly assigned to interview the iconic TV host, his armor of cynicism slowly begins to break away, and Rogers’ overwhelming kindness of spirit eventually shows Lloyd—as he’s done for millions of others worldwide—a healthier way to deal with his negative feelings.
This is all loosely based on an article published by Esquire magazine back in 1998. There, journalist Tom Junod went from skeptic to true believer to beloved friend of Rogers, but that’s about where the similarities between he and Lloyd end. Regardless, it’s an effective jumping off point, and something we’ve seen utilized before. But rather than use the investigative article to merely explore Rogers, it’s the catalyst for bringing Rogers into Lloyd’s life precisely when he needs it most. A middle-aged man with a wife and newborn son, Lloyd cannot seem to move forward in his life without resolving the issues of his past. And as that pain and resistance boils up, it threatens to wreck his career, his marriage, and his last chance to reconcile with his father.
Dire stuff, right?
At this point you’d be forgiven to think this doesn’t sound like the fluffy, puppet-filled throwback you might have hoped for. But that’s the brilliance of Marielle Heller’s direction and Malificent: Mistress of Evil writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue: they’ve managed to take the biggest strength of Rogers’ show and translate it into a two-hour feature. What really sticks with fans isn’t the trolley or the puppets or the sweaters, but rather how Fred Rogers was one of the first to find a sympathetic, gentle way to deal with the weighty issues affecting young people, from divorce to racism . . . even to death. So the edgier theme of wading through the pain of anger and betrayal to find a path to forgiveness isn’t foreign territory; it’s right in the wheelhouse. Heller, last seen helming the equally dramatic Can You Ever Forgive Me?, knows how to tackle emotionally charged material while crafting endearing—even lovable—misfit characters. But even more impressive, she brings the audience along, engaging them, sometimes directly, to let us know that these issues, and their solutions, aren’t just being portrayed but are things we can take with us beyond the theatre. Who could have put her up to that idea, I wonder?
So how does the nicest man in Hollywood measure up to one of the nicest men ever to walk the earth? About as well as you’d expect. Of course Tom Hanks is magnificent, capturing all the little mannerisms and wisps of language that are so quintessential Rogers. Sure, they don’t look much alike, and it’s hard to truly hide Hanks under the grey hair and eyebrows, but his masterful attunement to Rogers’ essence and Hanks’ own natural wholesomeness merge to bring to life the man in a way no other actor could. And perhaps that is not wholly a coincidence either, as it was recently revealed Hanks and Rogers are sixth cousins!
Matthew Rhys may not be a household name or face, but you might recall his performance alongside Hanks in 2017’s The Post. To Rhys’ benefit, that anonymity allows him to disappear completely into the role of Llyod, which provides plenty of opportunity for emotional exploration. Lloyd, as you can guess, goes through some major journeys, enough that if you’d never experience one for yourself there’s bound to be another there you have. It makes the broken character remarkably relatable despite his seemingly impenetrable shell. His relationship with Rogers feels wholly natural in a modern context—who wouldn’t question whether such a seemingly divine man was on the level? Lloyd’s constant pushing, questioning, and even rudeness toward Rogers feels natural, due in no small part to Rhys’ delicate maneuvering. His rapport with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), works much the same way, providing tension but without ever feeling the situation is hopeless. I, for one, have been sold, and will be looking for Rhys in many future works sure to come.
If this all sounds like fodder for Oscar contention, that’s likely no coincidence. A Beautiful day in the Neighborhood certainly has the ingredients. Stellar performances all around and strong drama spanning the emotional spectrum, balanced with heart, love, and a message of much-needed compassion, the film may not be what we initially expected but it’s without a doubt one that works—the sheer number of teary eyes and cheers by the end in my theatre can attest to that. If you’re looking for a biopic about Fred Rogers, you really can’t do any better than Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—and so why bother? I think it’s was a smart move, and perhaps far more effective, to demonstrate the ever-present influence Rogers’ point of view has had—and seemingly may be having again. The film venerates his perspective that emotions, even the dark, scary ones, are valid and nothing to be ashamed of; but we can choose how we deal with them. If we can just listen, acknowledge, and never shame others for their feelings, perhaps we can all find a way to be a little bit more neighborly to each other. And wouldn’t that be a beautiful day?