PORTLAND, Ore. — There's a scene fairly late in Ford v Ferrari where one of the film's two main characters sits down with his young son, Peter (Noah Jupe), and describes the legendary French racetrack he is about to spend the next 24 hours circling. The boy stares at him, starstruck. And as his dad explains in exacting detail what it takes to pull off the so-called "perfect lap" on this infamous course, you can see Peter lapping up every last syllable, desperate to quench his thirst for details of his celebrity father's exciting life. Through the entirety of the film, most of their conversations center around cars and the people who race them. But hidden between the syllables are the things they're really trying to say to each other.
Ford v Ferrari is full of these kinds of conversations and they're what elevate it from dad flick to Oscar contender.
The kid's dad is Ken Miles (Christian Bale at his charismatic best), a real man who raced real cars real fast. He's good friends with Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), another real man who used to race cars until a health scare doomed him to a life of watching the action from the pit. As for the film's namesake, Henry Ford is no longer alive but his enduring legacy hangs heavily over his son, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who some dismissively call "Deuce" behind his back. The company's glory days are in the rear-view mirror but, determined to honor the family name and prove his mettle as CEO, Deuce tasks Miles and Shelby to build a race car that can beat the seemingly unbeatable Ferrari in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. You could Google what happens next, but it wouldn't be as fun.
A lot has been written about how Ford v Ferrari is "much more than a racing movie," I suspect by serious critics trying to convince their colleagues that it's okay to enjoy a movie about traditionally macho men racing cars. Yes, I'm sorry to report that it is indeed a racing movie made up almost entirely of straight white men. But it manages to also be a good, possibly even great, and about many things you might not expect in a racing movie.
For example, when one of Ford II's lieutenants starts making demands that Miles and Shelby don't want to follow, the film becomes about the perils of bureaucracy. And when company leadership smells an opportunity to advance the Ford brand at the cost of one of our heroes' pride, it transforms yet again, this time into a parable about how marketing can vacuum out your soul.
Or take the moment Miles and Shelby run out of words during a heated exchange so they resort to fists. Or the moment Shelby delivers bad news to Miles who, instead of reacting to the setback, just keeps muttering about gaskets and fuel lines -- the only language he speaks. That's when the movie's paint job is stripped and we start to see what really lies beneath: a story of two guys who love each other like brothers but don't know how to say it, either because they think they're not allowed to or they were just never taught how.
I saw this movie with my dad on Thanksgiving and that might be why I was so struck by the scenes with Miles and his son. The film spends a lot of time just observing the boy simply being with his dad, grease-covered, overall-clad, and usually tinkering with an engine in a dirty garage. At no point does Miles actually tell the boy he loves him. But there are few movies that portray love between a father and son more clearly and movingly.
It's not a perfect film and if I wore a watch I definitely would have checked it a couple times before the credits rolled. A penultimate race before the grand finale also feels a bit like a false-climax and some of the dialogue sounds like it was added by the studio to hold the audience's hand through the film's more complicated plot points. That said, the film never loses steam and it's never boring, even when it swaps racetracks in France for boardrooms in Detroit.
So, yes, Ford v Ferrari is a good movie about manly-men racing their manly-cars. But if you're willing to trust it behind the wheel while you climb into the passenger seat, you'll find a whole lot more under the hood. Even if you're not a car person.
Ford v Ferrari / 152 min / Directed by James Mangold / Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and Jon Bernthal