The title of Ford v. Ferrari sets up a battle between corporations, or at least the men who share their names. But the movie isn’t about dueling titans of industry, and though Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) both make appearances, they’re not especially integral to its story. The real battle in the movie isn’t between auto-industry giants, but within one of them—specifically, between the executives at Ford and the racing drivers Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale). In the early 1960s, Ford—inspired, at least in the film, by marketing guru and future Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal)—decided it needed to revamp its image as a maker of sturdy but staid automobiles, and the quickest route to a sexier image was to break into the world of European auto racing. But that required breaking with the assembly-line mentality instilled by Ford’s grandfather and letting Shelby, a champion driver turned car designer, and Miles, a middle-aged veteran who’d faded from the spotlight, bend the rules.
Bending the rules is not high on the list of Ford vs. Ferrari’s priorities. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) and his writers (Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller) are sufficiently unafraid of cliché that they actually have a character watch Miles zipping around the track and comment, “He’s difficult, but he’s good.” The movie is a well-cooked steak with a baked potato on the side. It satisfies and fills you with warmth, even as (or is it because) it never surprises you.
As Miles, Bale exudes an impish charm that’s too often missing from his screen performances. Miles is impetuous and short-tempered; he throws a wrench at Shelby during their first encounter, which Shelby later frames and stick on his wall. But he’s not dark or tortured in the worn-out mold of such antiheroes as Bale’s own Bruce Wayne. He’s a devoted family man, true to his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (14-year-old Noah Jupe of Honey Boy and A Quiet Place, who here is finally allowed to reveal his native English accent). He’s only headstrong because he’s right. That doesn’t stop him clashing with the suits at Ford, particularly the unctuous conformist Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who seems to resent Miles and the slightly more diplomatic Shelby on principle. But the conflict between them feels ginned up and shallow, a stock confrontation between rebellious achievers and the company men who want to hold them back.
It’s apt that the movie’s focus is on long-haul endurance races, particularly the 24 hours of Le Mans, which tests not just a racer’s (and a car’s) speed but the driver’s consistency. Mangold is rarely an exciting director, but he’s matured into an accomplished journeyman, like the Hollywood directors who were revered before the auteur theory shifted the criteria. He’s not a flashy individualist, and for all its breathless racetrack sequences, Ford vs. Ferrari is rarely the kind of movie that makes you stop and think, “Damn, look at that shot.” Even the moments that do stick out do so because of their ambient glow rather than any fancy camerawork: Mangold and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, fetishize the gleam of a racetrack at dusk, as if we’re watching the end of an era and not the beginning of one. But the movie works on you cumulatively, wearing down the impulse to roll your eyes at its familiar parts and leaving you to appreciate how snugly they fit together, and the way the whole thing purrs.
It would be stretch to even call it subtext, but it’s worth noting, even if the movie doesn’t, that both Ford and Ferrari had associations with European fascism: Henry Ford was an avowed anti-Semite whose portrait hung in Hitler’s office, and Ferrari worked for Mussolini. That casts the film’s tension between individualism and conformity in a different light. Henry Ford II, known as “the Deuce,” is introduced with a scene in which he lectures factory workers about coming up with new ideas, but he’s also presented as a rigid authoritarian who bristles at the slightest disobedience. That is, until Shelby takes him for a spin in the car that he and Miles have been modifying. As Shelby rips around the practice track, the skin on Letts’ face threatens to flatten into a pancake, and he’s gripped by a mixture of fear and awe. (It’s like the Star Gate sequence at the end of 2001, only with a race car instead of an escape pod.) When Shelby screeches to a halt, there’s a breathless pause as we wait to see if Ford will erupt in anger, furious at being taken so far out of his comfort zone. Instead, he erupts in tears. He’s like Anton Ego at the end of Ratatouille, overcome with the sensation that more is possible than he ever imagined, the sudden realization that he’s been standing in the way of something he can only begin to comprehend. Ford v. Ferrari is not just about how good it feels to break the rules. It’s about how much we lose when we can’t imagine what lies beyond them.