“I had no idea!” says Henry Ford II, the calculating man, the money-general, weeping as he encounters—for the first time up-close—the sheer power of a metal wonder made by human hands. It’s a pivotal moment, yet James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari pulls a dozen of these maneuvers with all the cool madness of a Ken Miles or a Carroll Shelby. Mangold delivers a tightly-written and multi-layered study of two kinds of men: those who master metal monsters and those under the mastery of a different sort of beast.
When the Ford Motor Company’s sleazy attempt to buy off excellence gloriously backfires, Henry Ford II resolves to defeat Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Meanwhile, Carroll Shelby, a former Le Mans winner turned car manufacturer, and his abrasive British friend, the supremely talented Ken Miles, have their own private woes. Ford executive Lee Iacocca brings Shelby’s interests into alignment with Ford’s new mission, and Shelby brings on Miles as the only driver that he’s certain can win. From this springs the film’s central conflict: Ford believes that sufficient money and management must result in a winning car. Shelby understands that such a car cannot even be built—let alone driven to victory—without exactly the sort of man that Ford cannot manage.
Lost in this brief plot description are carefully layered themes about manliness and humanity in a world of big, faceless machines that have the resources to “leverage” greatness but which are too “efficient” not to get in their own way. It’s a film about men pressured by that same institutional weight to do what they’ll hate themselves for later—but do it anyway. It’s a film about men too in love with their craft to surrender it to the “machine men with machine hearts.” As Mangold sees it, when it comes to Great Men, there are those willing to pay, in their own bodies and souls, the awful price of greatness, and then there are the men who are merely able to pay. Finally, there are others, like Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), stuck somewhere in the middle: bowing reluctantly to the might of Leviathan, even as their hearts pull them in a nobler direction.
Much like Henry Ford II, I had no idea what kind of beast I’d signed up for with Ford v Ferrari. I wasn’t surprised that Matt Damon (as Carrol Shelby) and Christian Bale (as Ken Miles) played their parts well, but I was floored by the complexity and realism of their friendship, and by the film’s unapologetic portrayal of men; of the things they love; of the goods they value. I wasn’t surprised that Ford’s executives often came off badly, but I was surprised at the moments when their “inner boy” surfaced, when we saw the kinds of men they secretly wanted to be and might still become.
While Ford v Ferrari is a manly movie, it’s no “bro flick.” Mangold shows us layers of masculinity: the admirable, the counterfeit, and everything in between. That means he also shows us that any good man depends upon the love of a good woman. Mollie Miles (Caitríona Balfe) is the wife that any husband would be lucky to have, equal parts supportive, inspiring, and challenging. Mollie’s love not only accepts the rough man she’s chosen to marry; her love stretches to include the work that he loves—with all its attendant dangers. She makes Ken better. Indeed, she makes him possible. One can’t help but be reminded of the lyrics of John Mayer’s “Daughters”: “Boys, you can break / You’ll find out how much they can take / Boys will be strong / And boys soldier on / But boys would be gone without warmth from / A woman’s good, good heart.”
But this scratches the surface: Ford v Ferrari has things to show us about good fatherhood, about competency, and about sportsmanship. The cinematography, choreography, and sound editing are also fantastic. There’s some moderate cussing and swearing, but the tight plot leaves no room for political agendas nor for nudity. If you enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick, this film will be right down your alley.
Content: Moderate Language