Oscar Films

Oscars Underrate ’Ford v Ferrari’

Wonderful performance by Christian Bales anchors strong film that deserved more nominations.

By - Jan 24th, 2020 04:24 pm
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“Ford v Ferrari”. 20th Century Fox.

America’s love for speedy cars and Detroit brand dominance have made a cinematic box office victor out of Ford v Ferrari, which takes Hollywood liberties with a famous 1960s rivalry but also has some legitimate Oscar nominations (not for best picture which is a joke, but for editing and sound categories).

Its big name lead actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, were ignored by Oscar voters but not by moviegoers who have made the film a big draw since November.

Slickly directed by James Mangold, it forces an immediate confession from me. I am familiar with but not a fan of sportscar racing movies, which makes me un-American in some circles. I think our fetish with automobile speed – and even with the interstate highway system, for which I was grateful on a recent trip to Florida and is responsible for a legion of truck and car improvements that have enhanced my living standards  — is now standing in the way of efforts to limit fossil fuels.

Maybe over decades electric cars will take over these expansive highways and steel and concrete trade routes that have knit the country together. But you could argue that our continued fascination with the automobile, its oily smells, roars and shifting gears, that all this focus the mechanics of cars is getting in the way of where progress should be taking us.

That said, race car movies have been a Hollywood staple since James Cagney and Clark Gable and was certainly formidable for James Garner and Steve McQueen in the same 1960s decade where this film takes place.

For those who don’t think like me and even for those who do, the movie is a technological Le Mans triumph, a buddy story of how racing car designer Carroll Shelby and beatnik British driver Ken Miles – Damon and Bale respectively, the first with a heavy Southern actor, the second mastering the brash Brummie intonations and sardonic wry smile of a  Birmingham rascal – joined together in individuality to force Henry Ford II off his placid rump (a glaringly pompous performance by Tracy Letts) and think outside his Brooks Brothers corporate juggernaut devoted to mass production.

Stung by a Ferrari trade deal that ran rings around him, Ford vows to beat the Italian engineering monarch on the international racetrack, which in the film requires undoing the entire CEO executive structure Ford has built and accept the scruffy mavericks and their team of builders.

The film makes a big deal about how different the assembly-line car industry is from what is needed on the race circuit. In fact, the Ford corporate structure is the big villain in the story. In my mind, Bale’s jaunty performance as the much hated Detroit intruder raises the film out of the B movie class.

The movie shows all sides playing gamesmanship diving in and out of the racing pits. It makes a too big deal about the poetry and independence of high speed racing, but drives the point home when Letts is forced to endure a high speed ride in his own creation (another fictional concoction).

In race after race leading to crash after crash, it also plays with reality as drivers seem to have time at outrageous speeds to glare at each other and yell insults in between gear shifts. Even racing novices will know how the film is playing stop-and-go games with the realities of the track, whipping up our involvement with invented moments of conflict and trickery.

Off-centering the driving excess are the intervals of Bale’s character as a warm and impish parent and spouse, blessed by the loving and defiant looks and style of Caitriona Balfe as his wife. Many of the events, such as a comic knockdown fight between the Damon and Bale characters, are totally fabricated, just as the movie makes mythic the final events, wrapping a neat emotional bow around the proceedings.

In those moments the film is pure Hollywood and mawkish, but Bale’s performance and its technical atmosphere makes a car race movie that surpasses those of the past.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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