As the film world rages in a debate about the definition of “cinema,” it’s nice to get a firm reminder of what a “movie” is.
Ford v Ferrari, the latest from James Mangold, is infused with love of the cinematic experience. It's full of race cars whooshing right past your face, the unassailable magnetism of A-list movie stars and million-dollar visual effects.
Mangold’s telling of Ford’s attempt to take down Ferrari at the famous 24 Hour of Le Mans race in France rolls in like the thunder before a tornado. The director's strengths lie in his willingness to let his actors and production team take the spotlight. He straps you into the car with racing legends Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon looking like a smiling-face-with-cowboy-hat emoji) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale hamming it up and doing his best Brummie accent) and punches for the finish line. You feel the rush throughout.
The movie finds Shelby and Miles navigating the stodgy corporate politics of the Ford Motor Company under the leadership of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts in a fake-tough-guy role that makes you appreciate his range, particularly after his work in Lady Bird). Josh Lucas sulks around as Leo Beebe, Henry II’s vulture-on-the-shoulder, constantly undermining Shelby’s attempt to let the earnest-yet-brash Miles drive the car (their best chance at victory), in favor of more PR-friendly racers.
It’s a nice metaphor for why the old-fashioned crowd-pleaser should have its due. When smart directors and producers get out of the way of their actors and craftsmen, they let big studio movies shine. It’s amplified when the studio heads offer the same courtesy to the directors and producers.
When Damon and Bale share the screen, you feel something seismic happen — a jolting gigawatt of energy is unleashed. Mangold doesn't do frills here — we’re spared the overlong takes, needless exposition and distracting dialogue that would take away from the story and performances. Despite its 152-minute run time, the film as efficient as can be.
Some folks consider movies like these old news, a traditional style of sporting flick where we can cheer for the good guys in a race against time, thumbing our noses at the antagonists and the odds alike. But Mangold, Damon and Bale know better what they’ve got.
The film represents the bygone standard of moviemaking that audiences are neglecting — or flat-out rejecting — more and more. The debate's most recent and most exhausting chapter kicked off when Martin Scorsese said in an Empire Magazine interview that Marvel movies “are not cinema.” The irony is that fans of independent cinema and Marvel movies alike are the ones neglecting movies like Ford v Ferrari, which used to be the lifeblood of the industry. Would-be Hollywood blockbusters — think 2018’s excellent Widows and First Man — are opening to critical acclaim, but performing underwhelmingly at the box office.
Average moviegoers and ardent cinephiles alike could stand to open their wallets for a good old-fashioned studio barn-burner like Ford v Ferrari. It gives us everything a big, swaggering crowd-pleaser should.
This story originally ran in our sister publication, the Nashville Scene.