There’s a very interesting subgenre of movies that often gets referred to as “dad movies.” These movies can be all sorts of different genres, and can even have wildly diverse tones. But, they’re the types of movies that end up playing during Saturday afternoons on basic cable, they feature serious men making tough decisions, and dads love them. Sometimes they’re about war, sometimes they’re about sports, and sometimes they’re about outlaws, but they’re always rather serious, toned down movies that can kind of blend together in your memory. They aren’t amazing movies, and they aren’t bad either. They’re solid. But, every now and then you find a director who can master the elusive dad movie genre, and elevate it to something special. Like Michael Mann. He made a career off of making movies seemingly designed specifically for dads to love, while becoming a very innovative and interesting filmmaker. But, for various reasons Mann just doesn’t make movies any more, leaving quite a few attempted projects seemingly abandoned forever. And yet, some of these projects were solid enough that others directors have taken them up, either directly taking over the project or just making a similar film. And, one such project was the story of how Ford managed to do the impossible, and win the Le Mans car-race in France. It was a white whale project of Michael Mann’s, and now that it seems like he’ll never bring it to fruition, the story has been taken up by James Mangold. And, it’s certainly a dad movie. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t have been something potentially more.
The film follows the lives of two men, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Shelby was the first American to win the Le Mans race, and now works designing and selling race-cars due to health conditions, and Miles is a fiery driver who is struggling as a mechanic. And, their lives are changed when Shelby is approached by Lee Iacocca, an executive at the Ford Motor Company who is attempting to revitalize the Ford image for a new generation, and wants to accomplish this by besting Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans. He hires Shelby to do the impossible, and use Ford’s massive resources to make a race-car capable of besting the finest cars in the world. It seems unlikely, but Shelby decides to give it a shot, and works with his friend Miles to attempt to bring it to life. However, Miles ends up rubbing people at Ford the wrong way, and he ends up getting kicked off the team shortly before their first attempt is brought to France to race at Le Mans. And, both because of a lesser driver and an incomplete driver, the Ford car loses miserably, making Henry Ford II start to second-guess this entire thing. But, Shelby is able to convince Ford that they need to take another stab at it, and to give him complete control this time. And, shockingly, this works.
Shelby and Miles then get to work building a new car. Their first attempt ended up breaking down, but it was also able to reach 218 miles per hour. So, they have the speed, they just need the control. They then begin developing a new car, focusing on control and brakes, which does result in Miles almost dying in an explosion, but ends up creating a functioning and impressive car. Unfortunately, Ford is still hesitant about Miles, viewing him as an unappealing face of the company, but Shelby is able to convince them to give him the job, so long as he succeeds in winning a similar 24 hour race in Daytona. And, Miles manages to pull it off, earning him a spot at Le Mans. They then head to France, and prepare to do the impossible and defeat Ferrari. The 24 hour race is full of drama and tense moments, such as Miles’ car-door refusing to close and some problems with the brakes, but they eventually reach the point where Miles is able to outpace and defeat Ferrari’s cars, ensuring that Ford’s three cars will win. However, Ford also forces Miles to give up personal glory in exchange for a photo-op, leading Miles to not win the race due to a technicality. But, Miles is deemed a team player, and goes on to continue perfecting the car. Until he dies months later while testing a new prototype, cutting his legacy rather short. But, they were able to make a successful car which continued to win Le Mans for the next three years.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this movie. I am not a car guy, and don’t really have any sort of emotional response to movies that are full of cars. I don’t believe that I had even heard to the Le Mans race before this film, nor was I aware of this story. So, I was going in pretty blind to a movie that didn’t exactly have an overly interesting subject matter to me. And, I more or less enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t anything special, and I struggle with falling into the trap of wondering if Michael Mann could have told this story better, but I also was surprised to find myself getting into it more than I expected. Every now and then I get hit with a pretty boilerplate dad movie that ends up affecting me much more than I would have guessed, apparently showing that I’m becoming more sentimental and dad-like as I get older, but this one just didn’t quite do it for me. There were good performances, some impressive racing photography, and a decent biopic consolidation, but I just kind of walked away from the movie feeling like it was an over-long commercial for Ford. And the idea of male fragility.
Because this entire film stems from Henry Ford II being mad that people aren’t taking him seriously. He lives in the shadow of his famous grandfather and father, and manages to get talked into starting this whole thing because he’s worried teenagers don’t think his cars are sexy or fun enough. Then, when he puts his toes into the world of Le Mans, Ferrari personally insults him, and he decides to throw the full weight of his power to beat him at something he didn’t even care that much about prior to the insult. His fragile male ego was able to move heaven and earth, change the course of his company, and defeat a juggernaut of a sport he previously didn’t care about. His giant, unfeeling company was able to destroy an artisan who has people hand-craft his cars, and who took this whole thing deadly seriously. And they were able to win at the expense of the actual driver’s legacy, forcing him to compromise in favor of a corporate photo. Which, is all a huge bummer. This is a sad story, where we’re supposed to root for the massive corporation just because they suckered two charming guys into being instrumental in their victory over someone with passion, at the expense of those two men’s personal convictions. It’s a story of a corporation forcing mediocrity over everyone, all because of one powerful man’s bruised ego, and it’s supposed to be an uplifting story. But hey, America needed a win.
Ford v Ferrari was written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller, directed by James Mangold, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk