Ford v Ferrari isn’t a perfect film. For a racing movie, its first act is painfully slow. The script has some baffling moments—when it introduces Christian Bale as ’60s-era British bad-boy race car driver Ken Miles, an unnamed character appears on screen after he throws a temper tantrum to say the words: “Ah, he is good, but difficult.” It’s the kind of movie where, at a climactic moment in a preliminary race, Matt Damon—playing legendary sports car designer and Texan Carroll Shelby—runs out to tell Miles that he should go really, really fast, and the film treats it as a “that’s so crazy, it just might work” sort of revelation.
But for all its flaws, the movie, out November 15, gets at something that most of its kind—mainstream, Oscar-bait fare about sports, with megastars in the lead roles—aren’t even interested in: the conflict between labor and management, told in a way that eschews the easy resolutions we’re accustomed to, and which instead plays those things out the way they often end up happening in the real world.
Damon, as Shelby, plays a good ol’ boy people-pleaser who hasn’t really had to decide where his line in the sand is. After retiring from racing—owing to a weak heart—he opens a garage and dealership, where folks with disposable income buy cars from a former champ so they can feel the thrill of the road. He oozes Lone Star State pride: His garage features a Texas flag hanging against the wall, he keeps a taxidermy armadillo in his office, and he’s rarely seen without his Stetson. When Ford Motor Company comes calling as they look to build a racing team, he’s quick to glad-hand the exec (the famed Lee Iococca, played against type by The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal) who knocks on his door. His choice of driver, though, reveals a defiant streak. Where Shelby avoids conflict, Miles delights in it—his first interaction with a Ford executive finds him declaring to the man’s face how much the new Mustang sucks—which makes him an odd fit for the company-first Ford marketing team. He’s not even sure he wants the gig—when Shelby approaches Miles about it, he declares that the suits will screw him, just because it’s all they know how to do—but financial troubles mean that he needs the paycheck, so he takes it.
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The title of the film is misleading—almost certainly intentionally so—as the conflict between Ford and Ferrari doesn’t matter to any of the characters we actually like in the movie. The two auto manufacturers find themselves at war because they’re both owned by arrogant, petulant rich men whose egos bruise too easily. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), facing flagging sales at the company his father built, attempts to acquire Ferrari to add some sex appeal to the brand. Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), on the verge of bankruptcy in his quest to build the ultimate driving machine, refuses the acquisition because Ford won’t give him the autonomy he craves. Instead, Ferrari insults Ford, and Ford retaliates by assembling a racing division to rival the famed Ferrari race cars at Le Mans. But we’re never meant to identify with Ford—Letts plays him as a blustering blowhard who strains for credibility—and Ferrari is a cipher; director James Mangold doesn’t even dignify his Italian dialogue with subtitles. The real conflict here is between Ford—the team run and assembled by Shelby—versus Ford, the company run by men in suits who care at least as much about breaking the people who work for them to their will as they do about winning.
Which made the film’s closing night screening at the Austin Film Festival on Thursday oddly timely. That kind of battle—between the people who sign the checks and the people who actually do the thing—has been playing out in a few places this week. On Wednesday night, the Astros lost the World Series. In a brutal game 7, the tide finally and fully turned when closer Roberto Osuna was on the mound, giving up the hit that gave the Nats a cushion beyond their thin, one-run lead. Osuna was wearing an Astros uniform that night because the team acquired him on the cheap, after a domestic violence arrest in Toronto—and at the start of the series, Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein reported on how now-fired assistant Brandon Taubman had shouted “Thank God we got Osuna!” to a group of reporters, all of whom happened to be women. The way that the Astros’ management handled the incident left players on the team in a tough spot during what should have been one of the most thrilling moments of their careers. And fans were left conflicted—is it possible to cheer for the players, and not the people who watch the game in executive suites?
Throughout the week, a similar divide played out in sports media. At the beloved sports blog Deadspin (which I’ve written for in the past), the new management installed by the private equity firm that recently acquired the site’s parent company issued a controversial editorial edict. They declared that non-sports content—which had been some of the site’s most successful and important posts—was off-limits going forward. Interim editor Barry Petchesky, in Ken Miles-esque fashion, responded by publishing an array of stories that had nothing to do with sports. The next day, he was fired, and the site’s entire staff began issuing resignations.
This is the conflict at the heart of Ford v Ferrari, and in a whole lot of America right now, too. In the movie, Henry Ford II spends tens of millions of dollars to prove that he’s as great a man as his father, who built the company, or as Ferrari, who built a superior car. All of the wealth, status, and power he possesses don’t actually make him smarter or more competent than the people around him without that money or authority—but when you have those things, it doesn’t really matter, because you can just fire anybody who disagrees with you, yell at anybody who makes you feel bad about yourself, and wake up the next morning feeling secure that consequences for those things are rare. When you want to win a race, you hire people who can build you the fastest car, and if anybody makes you feel like you’re not as smart as you want to be, you hire somebody else to drive it.
Everyone in Ford v Ferrari is either that kind of person, the kind of person who feels the need to reflexively defy that guy, or the kind of person who can’t wait to tell their rich boss what a great man he is. The journey of Carroll Shelby in the film is figuring out which one he wants to be. And while the movie is flawed in many ways (Caitriona Balfe, who plays Miles’s wife, is literally the only woman with more than one line), it doesn’t take the easy way out of this conflict. The events of the 1966 Le Mans race are a matter of public record, but in a different movie, it’s easy to imagine them being fudged. Ford v Ferrari could be about how Henry Ford II and his sycophants learned to appreciate Ken Miles’s bad-boy ways, while Shelby and Miles learned to be team players, just in time for them to come together to take on big, bad Ferrari.
But that’s not the way the world works, and it’s not the sort of story that feels authentic in 2019. The Astros’ players lost a World Series after the team’s management cast a pall on the event. Deadspin keeps posting, even though no writers or editors work there anymore. Sometimes, it seems the people who cut the checks win, no matter how fast the car you build for them can go.