In the aftermath of one of the climactic races in this film, Ken Miles surveys his tremendous achievement and, in an understated reflection, simply says “it could be better.” Much the same could be said for the film itself. Ironically, for a film that centers around the theme of triumph and tragedy in the relentless pursuit of perfection, “Ford v. Ferrari” misses the mark a few too many times to be considered truly great.
The movie centers on Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) in their attempt to achieve the apparently insurmountable task of taking the Ford Motor Company to victory over Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. The film crackles with the energy and thrill of the chase, and draws a great deal of strength from the chemistry between Damon and Bale that is apparent throughout the entire movie. It certainly has more than its fair share of quotable lines and quippy dialogue, and the film steadily develops and moves forward, hitting all of its beats like the thrum of a well-made engine. For most of the story, it is easy to find yourself tapping your toes along to some unconscious rhythm that brings the whole movie to life.
Much has been said on the subject of this film’s sense of near-inevitability about the eventual victory of its protagonists. While this is true to some extent, it doesn’t make the ride to that victory any less enjoyable. It is at a couple of points along the way, however, that the movie fails to make the most of its dramatic potential. Ken Miles, for example, is never presented as anything other than head-and-shoulders above any other racer in the field. He faces a great deal of economic uncertainty at one point in the plot, but before this can have much of an impact on the plot or character, a financial resolution swoops in to save the day. Marital discord is hinted at, before being dropped in the same scene in which it is introduced. It is these rapid resolutions and lack of stakes which make the movie entertaining, but not as powerful as it tries to be. Things do indeed seem just a bit too easy to make a significant impact on the audience.
Where the movie does shine is in the interactions between the two innovators (Miles and Shelby) and their interfering corporate overlords at Ford. These encounters do present the most stakes in the film, for though nominally having the same goal (victory over Ferrari), the motivations of the two groups are sometimes diametrically opposed. Ford seems to be in the pursuit for corporate prestige, pride, and egotism, where the vision of Miles and Shelby is to pursue perfection as its own end, for the sheer achievement of that perfect vehicle and race. These two visions find themselves in conflict more often than concord, and the resolution at the end is no less complicated than the interactions have been across the entire movie. Though the “victory of the human spirit” angle has been done time and time again, this particular source of conflict lends a fresh breath of life to what is otherwise a fairly predictable plot.
Another thematic element which is incorporated remarkably well into the story is the idea of the all-consuming pursuit of perfection, and that its achievement rests in a sublime moment of utmost peace; a balance between playing things too safe, and pushing so much that the hero loses control. A monologue delivered by Shelby early on is almost Shakespearean in its eloquence on riding the razor’s edge of 7,000 RPM in a race. It is at that perfect balance between pushing the engine too hard, on one side, and not letting it live up to its potential, on the other. When that moment finally arrives in the film, it is well-earned indeed.
What leads to the most confusion here, though, is the knotted question of the resolution of the story. Without giving anything away, the decisions made by central characters at the end on the one hand reinforce some of the overall themes of the story (particularly the pursuit of perfection as its own end), but on the other hand rankle as dissonant with the characters as the audience has seen them throughout the film. Both of the groups in conflict achieve their victory at the end, but it is only Miles and Shelby who can come away with any sort of honor. On the one hand, it makes sense in respect to certain themes within the story. But the decisions would mean more if they had actually been developed as issues within the story. It is in this consideration that the movie falls short of the perfection sought by the protagonists, for the lack of dramatic tension throughout leads to a resolution with much less firepower than it ought to have in what is otherwise an excellent movie.
Throughout, “Ford v. Ferrari” is a well-wrought and entertaining movie, but stumbles a few too many times across the dramatic and personal elements. It develops well the theme of the rewards and dangers of riding the razor’s edge in the pursuit of perfection, as well as the perennial problem of whether man and machine are capable of working together, in the end. But while the characterizations of the protagonists are entertaining and compelling enough, their actual character is underdeveloped and somewhat lacking throughout. It is a movie good enough that you want to take a second look and dive deeper into the story. Ironically, when you do, however, you find that it is not as deep as it promises to be.
I write these reviews because I love film, storytelling, and cinema as an art in pursuit of truth and beauty. On a more personal level, I simply like writing and thinking about the themes and ideas of movies. However, if you would like to support me in this endeavor, I do greatly appreciate your support!