Capitalist Car Clash

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Early in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) blusters onto the platform overlooking the assembly room floor, shuts down the machinery, and barks at his workers to stop what they’re doing. Business has not been good, and Deuce (as he is often called) is not happy. First he tells them about his grandfather “ruminating” as he walked home from his job at Edison Light, implying that the senior Henry Ford’s rumination led to the company that now employs them. “Go home and ruminate!” he growls. “If you come up with an idea, bring it to me. If not, stay home!” In essence, he creates the kind of competition that many companies use successfully today to keep their employees sharp and engaged. And it works.

One of those who ruminate is adman Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), who would later guide the failing Chrysler Corporation out of bankruptcy (with generous “donations” from the bailout kings in the federal government). Using a slideshow reminiscent of Don Draper in “Mad Men,” Iacocca explains that the boomer generation isn’t excited about the bulbous cars of their parents; they want sex appeal in their cars. “James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” he tells his boss, while a slide of Sean Connery leaning against an Aston Martin lights up the screen. “We need to think like Ferrari.”

Ford has the edge in sales, but Ferrari has the edge in wins. In fact, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) has nearly gone broke chasing perfection. Initially Ford sends Iacocca to Italy to buy out the Italian carmaker. But when Ferrari rejects the offer in favor of Fiat, telling Iacocca that Ford “builds ugly little cars in ugly little factories” and that Ford II is “fat,” Ford takes it personally and the race — both literally and figuratively — is on. He determines to enter a Ford in the 24-hour Le Mans race, with just 90 days in which to design, build, test, and redesign it.

“James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” Iacocca tells his boss, while a slide of Sean Connery leaning against an Aston Martin lights up the screen.

The man he turns to for the design is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racecar driver from Texas with a Texas-sized smile and Texas-sized plans. He now sells fast, expensive sports cars to people who have more money than sense (in fact, he sells “Steve McQueen’s car” to three different buyers — how’s that for a used car salesman!). The man Shelby turns to for help designing and testing the car is free spirit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British auto mechanic and racer who has an instinct for motors and a passion for driving. Together they design the Ford GT40 that, according to the movie, became the only American-made car to win at Le Mans — and did it four times in a row.

Ford v Ferrari is a racing movie of course, and the action scenes, especially the 40 minutes devoted to the race at Le Mans, are spectacular. Mangold refused to use CGI, and instead rebuilt the famous 8.5 mile circuit using five different locations in order to recreate the surrounding topography as it looked in the mid-’60s. But more than a racing movie, this is a business movie that asks us to consider the relative importance of the corporation and the individual.

Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is the company man, insisting that loyalty to the team is more important than recognition of the individual player (although he is promoting himself in the process). Miles, on the other hand, is a loose cannon who feels a stronger connection with the machine than with the company or the people who work for it. He talks to the car, coaxes her, encourages her, knows when she’s driving hot and when she can give him even more. He wants to win, of course, but what he really wants is to feel completely in sync with the car, to drive the perfect lap. At one point his young son Peter (Noah Jupe) tells him, “You can’t make every lap perfect.” Miles replies, “But I can try.” For Ken Miles, it’s not about business or about money or about winning; it’s about the joy of driving.

More than a racing movie, this is a business movie that asks us to consider the relative importance of the corporation and the individual.

Ford Motor Company withdrew support for the film shortly before its release because, they said, it portrays Henry Ford II and Leo Beebe as coldhearted villains. I disagree. Yes, Ford is vulgar, hard-driving, and ambitious. He barks at his workers and cares little about their feelings. He even leaves the big race to enjoy a nice dinner and a warm bed while his employees race through the night, and he returns the next morning rested and refreshed for the big finish. But Ford isn’t an asshole, and he isn’t unethical.

In fact, he’s a lot like publisher Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), another misunderstood villain. In one scene she disdainfully orders her production staff to tear down a completed fashion spread and start over, even though they have laid it out exactly the way Miranda demanded the day before. It doesn’t matter that they worked all night to finish it; it doesn’t matter that they are crushed by her dismissiveness. Once she sees the spread, she knows it isn’t right. Is she as nice and diplomatic as I am? No. Do people like her? No. But I’m not producing a monthly magazine earning hundreds of thousands in advertising in the cutthroat world of fashion. In business, “nice” is often a synonym for “I’ll settle for less.” Miranda won’t, and neither will Ford.

Ford II is vulgar, hard-driving, and ambitious. But he isn’t an asshole, and he isn’t unethical.

Some critics have complained about the overabundance of testosterone in Ford v Ferrari. Reviewer Hannah Elliott wrote that it “depicts a car guy generation best left dead and gone.” While acknowledging “it’s a beautifully shot film that will be enjoyable for modern car buyers and enthusiasts alike,” she nevertheless complained, “What I saw is a devastating picture of the lack of diversity that permeated the industry in the 1960s.” Really? It was devastating? Ugh. I get so tired of complaints about gender representation. Are we devastated that no men were wedding attendants in Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids? That no men got their hair done at Truvy’s salon in Steel Magnolias? That none of Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses were worn by a man? I think it’s great that Danica Patrick paved the way for women to become racecar drivers, if that’s what they want to do. But that’s a different movie waiting to be made.

Ford v Ferrari is a slice of history set in the 1960s, and an exciting slice at that. I don’t have to be a man to empathize with Ken Miles when he’s removed from the team for being too eccentric, or with his son Peter as he worries for his father’s safety, or with Carroll Shelby when he struggles to decide whether to go along with the boss or defend his driver. I don’t have to see a woman in the driver’s seat to feel a rush of adrenaline as the tires squeal and the gears mesh. I can identify quite nicely with the conflict and experiences of the men on the screen, even though I’m a woman. So just sit back and enjoy the movie. You’re in for a wild ride!

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