A number of years ago I was in Baltimore picking up some produce donations for my community from the vendors at the market when the mini-van I was driving wouldn’t start. One of the guys working there got underneath and then called up to one of his buddies to get him a hammer. He proceeded, much to my chagrin, to do a bit of pounding. When he emerged and the van obediently started, he said some part (I don’t recall which) had been lodged in the flywheel. Grinning and victorious he commented, “Who said you couldn’t fix a Chevy with a hammer?”
I suppose the same thing could be said of a Ford. In the Oscar-nominated “Ford v Ferrari,” Ken Miles (Christian Bale) spends the first lap of the film’s climactic race trying to get the car’s door to close. Unsuccessful, he heads to the pit, where Phil (Ray McKinnon), head of the crew, finally takes a rubber-headed sledgehammer to the car, solving the problem.
“Ford v Ferrari” isn’t as much about cars as it is about the men who design and drive them. In the 1960’s, Ford Motor Company was experiencing declines in sales. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) asks his marketing team, headed by Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), for ideas to reverse this trend. The answer: build a race car that can oust the reigning champs of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, Ferrari. This will make Ford’s automobiles attractive to young men looking to buy their first car. To accomplish this task, Ford looked to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the first American driver to ever win at Le Mans.
Due to a heart condition, Shelby had to retire from driving but his passion was designing and building race cars. To test cars on the track, Shelby called on his friend, Ken Hines, a driver who could feel the car and instinctively know what needed to be changed or improved. But Ken posed a problem for the Ford bureaucracy: his colorful personality made him almost impossible to work with. Would Ken project the image that Ford wanted associated with the company?
Matt Damon as Carrol Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Hines in "Ford v Ferrari." © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Thus begins the real battle of the film, that between Shelby’s creative passion to come up with the best car and the best person to drive it and Ford Motor Company who were in the race for profit and prestige. It’s another version of the age-old tension between art and profit. In this case, the art is race car design.
As a plot line, it doesn’t sound that exciting but make no mistake. “Ford v Ferrari” supplies enough adrenaline to keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat, even though the outcome is never in question. The human interaction between Matt Damon and Christian Bale captures what’s really important in the lives of both of these men.
Ken Hines’s greatest asset is his family. His wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), is a refreshing character who doesn’t spend the whole movie wishing her husband would quit his dangerous profession. She supports his passion as does his son, Peter (Noah Jupe). One particularly moving scene happens when Ken takes his son out to the racetrack at night and describes a perfect lap so vividly that Peter can see it in his mind’s eye.
Christian Bale and Caitriona Balfe in "Ford v Ferrari." © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Carroll Shelby and his Shelby-American design company is the creative genius behind Ford’s dream of beating Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and his famous race cars at Le Mans. Hired by Mr. Ford and thus accountable to him and the suits that surround him, Shelby, more than anyone, has to juggle what’s best for the car and driver and what’s best for the pockets financing the whole endeavor. He’s fairly adept at handling the pressure and the sometimes absurd suggestions coming from the suits. Well, except the one time he has to break some bad news to Ken and the two end up roughhousing on the street corner, attacking with a loaf of Wonder bread, much to the amusement of the eye-rolling Mollie.
Whether or not you’re a racing enthusiast, “Ford v Ferrari” pleases the crowd, taking the racing genre to new heights. Still, it’s the human elements of the film, not the mechanical ones, that remind us that art, even the art of designing race cars and driving them, can elevate the human spirit in ways that no pursuit of profit or fame ever can.