Film review: Ford v Ferrari

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, November 29th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: I’ve got a review of a thrilling, feel-good movie that will help you appreciate the men in your life. Though rated PG-13 for a smattering of language, it’s currently my frontrunner for the best film of 2019.

On its surface, Ford v Ferrari is about making American cars great again. But look underneath the hood and you’ll see this ripped-from-history story is really about making men great again. Or, better stated, cheering what masculinity is at its best.

On its surface, Ford v Ferrari is about making American cars great again. But look underneath the hood and you’ll see this ripped-from-history story is really about making men great again. Or, better stated, cheering what masculinity is at its best.

TRAILER: Mr. Ford, Ferrari has a message for you sir. What did he say? He said Ford makes ugly little cars in ugly factories. And he called you fat sir. We’re gonna bury Ferrari.

It’s the early 1960s and the Ford Motor company, once the pride of American industry has become bloated and mediocre. Oh, it’s still churning out plenty of vehicles. But they’re bland, inoffensive cars crafted to shuttle around families. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But they’re not the kind of machinery to inspire a sense of greatness.

A brash, young member of Ford’s executive team by the name of Lee Iacocca offers a solution.

CLIP: In the last three years you and your marketing have presided over the worst sales slump in US history why should Mr. Ford listen to you? Because we’ve been thinking wrong. Ferrari, now they have won four out of the last five races at Le Mans. We need to think like Ferrari. Ferrari makes fewer cars in a year than we make in a day. We spend more on toilet paper than they do on their entire output. You want us to think like them? Enzo Ferrari will go down as the greatest car manufacturer of all time. Why? Is it because he built the most cars? No. It’s because of what his cars mean. Victory. Ferrari wins at Le Mans. People, they want some of that victory. What if the Ford badge meant victory?

Iacocca knows greatness isn’t achieved by committee. And that men who get the job done on the track may also be prone to throwing a few elbows. So he recruits racer-turned car-dealer Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and gives him carte blanche to craft a winning vehicle and team. Shelby, in turn, recruits the best driver he knows—cantankerous British transplant, Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale).

Though Miles is a Brit, there’s something quintessentially American about both him and Texan Shelby. Damon and Bale deserve Oscar nominations for fleshing out their complexities without flattening their enormous personalities.  They’re blunt, competitive, and rough-and-tumble enough to resort to fisticuffs with bags of groceries on the front lawn. It’s the movie’s funniest scene.

We want Shelby and Miles to win not because we want to see Ferrari lose. It’s because we want to see them rewarded for their daring, their steel, their willingness to risk life, limb, criticism, and coin to blaze new trails.

TRAILER: Give me one reason I shouldn’t fire you right now. Well sir, we’re lighter, we’re faster, and if that doesn’t work, we’re nastier.

In fact, in his own refined, Italian way, Ferrari’s drive for excellence is, in many ways, a mirror to theirs.

CLIP: You can’t just push the car hard the whole way, right? That’s right. You have to be kind to the car. You have to feel the poor thing groaning underneath you. If you push a piece of machinery to the limit, you have to have some sense of where that limit is. Look out there—out there is the perfect lap. No mistakes, every gear change, every corner, perfect. You see it? I think so. Most people can’t. Most people don’t even know what’s out there, but it is. It’s there.

No, the real enemy is a Ford executive whose efforts to undermine Shelby’s team while taking credit for its work exemplifies a particular kind of corporate culture. The fainthearted kind that doesn’t respect individual achievement. The yes men who use buzzy corporate speak to mask the ways they stifle innovation and creativity.

But don’t imagine that means Ford v Ferrari is hostile to capitalism or to business in general. In fact, though a lesser character, it’s clear that Iacocca’s vision is what makes Miles and Shelby’s work possible.

Iacocca is no race car driver with grease under his fingernails. But he’s courageous in his approach to leadership, risking the wrath of those further up the food chain if it means delivering a better result. Sharp and masterful in the background, he shows that doing excellent work can also mean clearing the track to allow others to run their race unhampered.

I suspect James Mangold, director of similarly rugged films as Logan and Walk the Line, didn’t set out to make a rallying cry for masculinity. And maybe at a different time, in a moment where words like toxic aren’t so often used to describe men, it wouldn’t feel so much like one. And yet unlike so many of the films marketed as feminist, nothing about Ford v Ferrari hits you like a take-your-medicine, support-the-message kind of movie. It’s an exhilarating, roaring romp. And you don’t think once about what its glimpse of the past says about our present culture until long after it’s already said it.

Once it has, it leaves you grateful for a God that made us male and female. That we get to live in a world where we can sigh over a Jane Austen romance one week and thrill to the antics of wild boys like Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles the next. And it makes you sad to think we might be losing it.

(Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox via AP) This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Matt Damon in a scene from the film, “Ford v. Ferrari.” 

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