Director: James Mangold.
Stars: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Josh Lucas & Tracy Letts.
Review by Damocles.
A movie that finally captures what racing is all about.
As a fanatic gearhead and a fan of James Mangold’s work, I have only heard positive things from both the car and film community.
So my expectations were high going in.
It is safe to say that this might be my favourite car movie of all time.
The racing, the story and all the elements of the film coalesced perfectly together in harmony.
There is an old-school vibe to the film, in particular with how little CGI there is and the simplicity of the story.
The footage captured has a particular focus to detail that rewards re-watches. The sound design in particular is excellent, really emphasizing every shift, and roar of these beautiful machines that continue to inspire petrol-heads everywhere.
But it is the masculinity that runs through this film that really sold me. James Mangold is one of those directors who seem to know how to inject the right amount of masculinity into all of his films. The characters that he brings to life in all of his films are always nuanced, flawed yet brilliantly realised.
In a film about motor-racing, it is hard to deny that this is a very male film. After all, it is said that petrol runs in every man’s blood. There is something about the combination of smell, touch, machinery, and untapped potential in any man’s car that lights you up from the inside when you steer or put the pedal down.
Even the most evasive non-motoring man cannot deny the thrill one gets, when you put the pedal down.
This film captures that adrenaline rush perfectly, as well as the strange floating sensation when you soar above “7000rpm.” It is a feeling that can only be described as man and machine, fused as one.
I wanted to highlight this element, because Mangold has made a career out of depicting male characters on screen, from his earliest hits like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) to his latest critical hit Logan (2017). In so many of his films, he explores the meaning of what it means to be a man, and the many different battles a man need to tackle in his life.
In Ford v Ferrari, the story isn’t as focused on the actual battle between the two motoring giants waging war on the racetrack of the 24hrs Le Mans.
The story is more keenly focused on the relationship between Caroll Shelby and Ken Miles, and their battle against corporate interference and each other. Their fun dynamic is what truly sells the film, and much like the relationship depicted between Charles Xavier and Logan, it is the heart of the film. The emotional scenes are gripping, because you are invested in the characters and their struggles within and outside of themselves.
This emotional resonance then carries over to the racing, and only serves to heighten the win and the exhilaration as you feel that to these men, racing isn’t just a matter of turning a wheel, it is truly about pushing yourself to the absolute limit and triumphing beyond those very limits.
While there is plenty of depth to the story, (corporate America, family sacrifices, a new era of American motoring, etc) the simplicity of it all boils down to the underdogs beating the odds, is what makes the film so much fun to watch.
That the film is an original IP, and is shot in a way that utilises natural lighting, and real cars speeding across roads only serves to enhance the viewing experience. In a world where there is clearly too much superhero and computer graphic imagery, watching Ford v Ferrari is like a breath of fresh air.
There isn’t a world at stake here. There isn’t some moustache-twirling villain who summons a blue sky beam. There aren’t scenes where the actors aren’t sure how to behave before a man in a green suit with a tennis ball above his head.
James Mangold took the time to run the actual cars at break-neck speed just so that his actors and extras can follow the cars and experience the thrill, whilst replicating period-accurate clothing, hair-styles and sensibilities.
There is a scene I remember, where you see all these iconic blue COBRA shirts worn by the pit crew bumping into each other, just to get a closer look at the cars, racing across the finish straight and you can clearly see that those are real cars being driven across the track, just to get that shot right.
You won’t see that anywhere in a large-scale Marvel or DC film. The cars would be CG’ed in, the actors would have dots on their bodies and there would be a sense of disbelief in what you are seeing.
It is those small details and efforts that make the film such a fun experience and really sells you the racing.
I would also like to compliment the maverick attitude that both Damon and Bale encapsulate about racers. Their performances perfectly match the outlooks that all racers possess regardless of which era they are born in. The competitiveness, the obsession with chasing perfect laps, the courage to push limits beyond safety … these are all traits that all racers are born with, no matter what car they race.
I’ve mentioned the period-accurate clothing, and would like to give praise to the costume designers for ensuring that every man at the race track is equipped with the coolest sunglasses available. Racers, Engineers, Team Principals … it is a necessity to possess a pair of sunglasses whilst racing. Something of an unspoken rule.
Moving onto the more technical elements of the film, I was struck by the continual collaboration between James Mangold and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael with their use of natural lighting and seamless blending of thrilling moments in-race. There is 60-40 balance of Bale’s performance behind the wheel, as there is on-track action and for a race-car film, that is the perfect mix.
After all, if I wanted to see racing, I would go watch my precious Formula 1 or World RX.
This is, first and foremost, a film, where character is the key component why I am watching. I am also here to see shots of the cars that would not be possible in normal racing live coverage. To my immense satisfaction, the stunts and the shots are all beautifully non CG’ed and there are so many moments in the film that had me smiling as I could see where Papamichael could convey speed and emotion in one frame perfectly, whilst highlighting the beauty of the scenery and machine.
The cinematography never arrests you in the film and tries to convey some epic vista. Instead it seamlessly blends into the story, with emotional moments being enhanced by the excellent visuals, such as Ken Miles’ talk with his son about the perfect lap. It creates a seamless viewing experience that doesn’t outshine the rest of the film.
Equally understated but coming in strong at key moments was the score by Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders. Beltrami is another long-time collaborator for James Mangold, with Ford v Ferrari marking their 4th time working together. It is the theme song, Le Mans 66 that really sells the beauty, drama and thrill of racing. I really appreciate having a theme song that is purely about the sensation of racing, instead of the “cool” elements of racing as seen in other car franchises like Fast & Furious.
Beltrami’s work throughout the film is consistently soulful and quiet, coming in strong when it needs to, before taking a softer note to the roar of an engine. Again, this is precisely what petrolheads like myself love and Mangold’s direction must be credited for the sound design of this film.
Ford v Ferrari is a film that struck me as fun at first, but upon re-viewings, I’ve come to appreciate more just how rare it is to get a film like this. This is a film, that isn’t trying to be a franchise, depicting real characters, a real race, real cars, real drama and is all based upon strong acting performances and the idea that you want to root for the underdog.
This is so rare in today’s world of Hollywood productions. In a lot of ways, Ford v Ferrari is definitive of the story it represents … a maverick, trying to beat an increasingly corporate approach to a creative industry.
So even for non gearheads, this is a film that you can enjoy.
I hope there are more films like these in the works. Less CGI, more real characters and real props please. I think the world needs more films like these than the cookie-cutter stuff that has saturated the market so much recently.
On a side-note, I may be a diehard tifosi but even in this race, I was cheering for Ford to win over my beloved Scuderia.
Because at the end of the day, no matter what team you go for, you just want to see a damn good race and for a good race to happen, it got to be close.
And Ford V Ferrari delivered exactly that.
A good race.
A scene to recall: Whenever Mangold allows the actors to deliver their lines in natural light. Whenever the cars get those glory shots through a corner. Whenever the LeMans race heats up. Whenever …. the movie is good … you get the idea. It’s a racer’s wet dream.