Playstation vs XBOX. Coke vs Ecstasy. Other Coke vs Pepsi. McDonald’s vs Burger King. Kevin Hart vs fidelity. Brand warfare is as ubiquitous as their advertisements, prompting a heavy amount of tribalism mixed with cynicism from the masses. So to turn this concept into a movie where the filmmakers must convince the viewers to root for one corporation over another is the challenge at the heart of Ford v Ferrari, a comedy-drama that is aware it’s complicit in brand awareness. James Mangold’s film slyly puts us in the corner of two likable heroes to soften the blow. You see, you’re not rooting for Ford, you’re rooting for Matt Damon and Christian Bale!
The premise is simple – in the 1960s, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants to increase the brand appeal of the Ford Motor Company. Ford vice president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) laments that the company isn’t cool – even sniping that James Bond wouldn’t drive a Ford. Iacocca pitches that consumers want a faster, more durable car and that they must demonstrate that to the masses by entering and winning the Le Mans – a marathon race that has been dominated by Ferrari in recent years.
They enlist the help of Carroll Shelby (Damon), an automotive genius and retired racer, to build the car of the future. Shelby wants his friend Ken Miles (Bale) to be the driver, but Miles doesn’t quite fit Henry Ford’s vision of the ideal face of the company. But he is more than happy to let Miles risk his life repeatedly while testing the prototype vehicles. The stubbornness displayed by the executives to get behind Miles puts Shelby in the crosshairs of the conflict; Miles is the best man for the job, appearances be damned.
The best man for this role is Christian Bale, our underappreciated chameleon. Everything about his performance has a charm to it that makes Ken Miles seem like the character we most want to be. From the way he seems to turn every discussion about cars into a not so subtle allegory for sex. His admirable work ethic and drive. His love for his son, and his (from what we’re led to believe) eventful sex life with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe). Bale carries every scene with an everyman charisma that is at once empathetic and enviable.
But while Bale is the most sensational performer here, Damon is clearly having the most fun. Damon is in what is easily his most relaxed state since The Martian (2015), as if he’s been waiting his entire career to portray an automotive designer with a southern accent who aggressively chews the hell out of a piece of gum while going on diatribes about his near-death experiences with cars. Not a well-tapped market, so it looks like he’s cornering it. To top it off, Bale and Damon have a remarkable amount of chemistry. It shouldn’t be surprising considering who’s involved, but seeing these two A-listers fight in the front yard before making up and continuing their work is the type of shenanigans this relationship and premise desperately needs. Complimenting the terrific performances are strong special effects and several exhilarating races. At times, the race scenes feel like a Dark & Gritty™ reboot of Speed Racer.
Director James Mangold has made a filmography out of depicting flawed individuals whose inner turmoil is directly measured with the stability (or lack thereof) of their most important relationships. In that sense, Ford v Ferrari pivots from this motif, depicting far less complicated individuals, but displaying a world where good people can be easily strung along by a system more concerned with the state of public opinion than treating their employees well.
But while that seems like a dire story, Ford v Ferrari is actually quite humorous and lightweight, never taking itself too seriously. I’m also 79% sure that Mangold modeled the structure of the film on every buddy cop movie ever made. One of Henry Ford’s early scenes involves him dramatically entering a Ford plant to browbeat his employees, à la a screaming police chief. There’s the juxtaposition between Shelby’s overwhelming commitment to his craft, next to Miles’ more balanced family life. There’s even the equivalent of a “YOU’RE OFF THIS CASE, MILES!” moment.
But the film makes sure to never get too high on the good feelings. This is still a movie depicting the pissing match between two massive corporations, and it ultimately does not forget that. We see the petty lengths a company can go to in order to get their way, at the expense of the hard-working people who make the company’s success possible. A spit in the face in place of a handshake. Some people would like a job that can set them for life, but many will accept one that pays well and just affords them some respect. It is tough to see Miles go through the wringer, earn the respect, and ultimately not receive it. That level of cruelty from a conglomerate is the most honest thing you’ll see in a movie this year, an unlikely irony in a movie about the car company with the most omnipresent media campaign. How’s that for a feel good movie for the holidays?