FORD v FERRARI (2019, James Mangold)
James Mangold’s 2005 Johnny Cash biopic WALK THE LINE was such a hoary compendium of musician-life clichés that it, along with its 2004 predecessor RAY, inspired Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan to make the hilarious WALK HARD, a lacerating satire of a genre that mightily deserved a good skewering. Marked by one-dimensional characters that only exist to serve or obstruct the protagonists’ goals, and by dialogue that talked down to the audience by bringing all the subtext up into the text, Mangold’s script was bad and condescending enough to propel WALK THE LINE to 5 Oscar nominations as well as a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture.
If ain’t broke — or if it IS, but nobody cares, then don’t fix it? Mangold, this time around, tapped GET ON UP and BLACK MASS writer Jez Butterworth to pen an equally crowd-pleasing and similarly dumbed-down screenplay that would also require its two titanic movie star leads to shoulder the load. Bale and Damon definitely rise to the occasion here: Damon, armed with a wavering Texas drawl, is nevertheless sturdy, confident, and summons the right amount of emotion; by contrast Bale is manic, funny, and wholly convincing as driver-mechanic Ken Miles. The movie might have been well-nigh insufferable without these guys.
Still, the audience has to endure being told everything that’s in front of our eyes, sometimes multiple times. After an establishing sequence underlining Miles as a daredevil rogue with as much attitude as he has talent, Mangold cuts to two suits on the sidelines who say, “He’s difficult… but good!” Not to be outdone, later on Damon’s Carroll Shelby witnesses Enzo Ferrari throw an un-subtitled tantrum in his box at LeMans, only to follow it up with “I don’t speak Italian, but he don’t seem happy!”
There’s also something a little hypocritical about a story that admittedly paints Ford Motor Company as a behemoth with bottomless resources (“we make more cars in a day than Ferrari makes in a year,” “I’ve got a blank check for you”) but then casts it as an underdog. Good old fashioned American ingenuity is gonna defeat those smug-ass Europeans! And because our heroes are a former driver-turned-maverick sports car designer and a loose-cannon Brummie mechanic, they get to take aim at Ford as a stand-in for Those Darn Bureaucrats. In perhaps the baldest spoon-feeding scene, Shelby goes to Ford’s office to answer to a failed attempt with his first run at LeMans. He says they had a good showing, “even with the wrong driver” (Mangold then cuts to Josh Lucas’s sneering Leo Beebe, responsible for kicking “the right driver” — Miles — off the team), “and decisions made by committee” (Mangold then cuts to three suits in charge of marketing)… it’s all a huge insult to anyone who’s been paying attention.
The racing scenes are capably handled, most notably in regards to sound design and mixing, and the 150 minutes are paced fairly well (definitely better than this overlong, redundant movie review). But it’s still a depressingly mimetic underdog sports movie with requisite reaction shots of the cheering son, upset villains in suits, and smirking heroes. I don’t think this is why they call it “Formula” One.