Though he didn’t invent it, James Mangold so perfected the Hollywood biopic/true story template with Walk the Line that they made a beat-for-beat parody of it in Walk Hard, so he might as well have. In Ford v Ferrari, he aims that factory efficiency at the hyper-masculine sports drama and produces pretty much exactly the desired result: an engrossing, glossy, overproduced spectacle with zero surprises, made with just enough style to make you forget that it’s nothing but formula.
It’s 1963, and Ford wants to buy Ferrari, but Ferrari says no, and since Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts!) is a smug, entitled, rich prick with a tremendous ego, he orders his engineers to get to work on building a car that will defeat the legendary Italian automaker at the world’s most prestigious race, the 24 hours at Le Mans. He hires former racer and genius engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who is very demanding and plays by his own rules because he is right all the time and also has a tremendous ego. To drive this car, Shelby enlists British racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hot-head who chafes against authority and is mildly unpleasant because, wait for it, he’s very good at driving and has a tremendous ego.
An uninterrogated description of good old fashioned masculinity, the engine that makes everything in America go.
And those parallels will have to do, as the larger film is devoid of anything that could seriously be called conflict. The boys get hired to build this car, and despite some hemming and hawing from those stuffed suits in the home office, lo and behold they do. Even Miles’ wife (Caitriona Balfe), in a role usually set aside for shrewish accusations of filial neglect in the name of manly ambition, basically says “I see why you’re so obsessed, I think you should build that car.” Mangold’s racing sequences are sturdily crafted, patiently cut, and efficient in their geography, which is saying a lot since Le Mans takes place in multiple environments on open road instead of track, from day to night, and in all manner of varying weather conditions. Damon’s chemistry with Bale is as good as you’d expect, and there are precious few obstacles to their bromance aside from the actual physics of driving an automobile.
And so this aforementioned patented biopic template has been put to excellent use as an uninterrogated, even a little elegiac description of good old fashioned masculinity, the engine that makes everything in America go, especially when it’s in the service of corporate brand identity. And while admittedly that’s not really prominently on Ford v Ferrari’s mind, it’s hard to ignore the link, especially when the biggest booster of the Shelby/Miles iconoclasm is none other than Lee Iacocca (played here by Jon Bernthal), a man who would go on to debut the literally explosive Ford Pinto. With its machine-tooled structure and stealth critique of market capitalism, it’s almost like Speed Racer but made specifically for your dad.