So the legend goes that in the early/mid 60s, Ford was looking to buy Ferrari. Ford sent its representatives to Ferarri, a deal was just about done until there was a spat about who gets to be in control of Ferrari’s racing decisions, and Enzo Ferrari told them to fuck off. Henry Ford II was sufficiently enraged that he told his own racing team that they had a blank check to do whatever they needed to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, blah blah.
I’m a massive dork for the 24h of Le Mans. I watch it every year, if admittedly not all 24 hours thereof. The history of the teams that compete there gets to being genuinely fascinating sometimes. And the film, Ford v Ferrari, was intended to be a sort of biopic of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, two of the storied racing heroes of yore that helped build one of the most legendary cars of all time, the Ford GT40.
The film is bad. You can tell its bad very early on, and it doesn’t really seem to hide it. I think what I’ll do is a count of obvious, repeating film tropes to highlight how hacked up this shit is.
We open with what turns out to be a too-CGI’d racing dream sequence in which Mr. Shelby is racing at night. He pulls in for a pitstop, catches on fire, and once the fire is out yells at them to keep fueling it up in a brief macho tirade. (1) This transitions into him at the doctors office where he’s being told he can’t race any more. (2) He then gets into his car, angrily dumps pills into his mouth straight from the pill bottle, and does a burnout JUST TO SHOW THAT SNOOTY DOCTOR. (3)
We cut to Christian Bale in a mechanics shop where a customer is yelling at him. He proceeds to tell the customer in the worst accent I’ve ever heard (we have to talk about that later) that the car is too good for him, he’s not driving it right, etc. (4) His wife arrives and begins talking nerdy about cars at him which leads to a brief snogging episode. (5)
Now we’re in a factory. A bunch of guys in suits are around on the platforms above the work floor. They shut down production so that the CEO can yell at the workers about how bad the company is doing, and somehow it’s the factory line guy’s fault that Ford is making cars nobody wants to buy (6 for the ‘stop all work so i can yell at you’ aspect. Could argue there’s an 7 there too for misassigning blame to the line workers but let’s leave that).
We’re at a race again. The ‘cool’ guy who can’t race anymore is being yelled at to wake up from what seems to be a night of drinking (7), and is suddenly up and about and dressed and looking nice to schmooze with randos from Porsche. We see the British guy arguing with a race inspector because of one minor little thing that’s wrong with the car, and a tantrum is pitched (8… this one goes on a while). Mr hungover guy has the speech with tantrum lad about how he could be doing great if he could keep his temper in check (9). Brit is further embarrassed when he realizes that his son just saw all the commotion of his father being a baby. (10)
That’s the limit of my attention span. The timestamp at which trope 10 there ends is 15:40. The intro sequence of the production company and all last about 1 minute, so doing the math we see we’re hitting on a commonly recognizable film cliche about once every 1.5 minutes. It doesn’t stop there (the next scene is the ‘IRS coming to shut down your business’ one, followed by a completely anodyne racing sequence where the Brit wins, it all just keeps going).
None of this is helped by Christian Bale’s accent. The man’s from Wales, I’ve heard his natural accent, it’s fine. Lovely, even. Here he was tasked with doing a Birmingham accent (‘Brummie’) and it’s the fakest thing in the world. It’s almost as bad as Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, which is as severe as I could possibly make that criticism. So severe I feel bad, even. But it’s hugely distracting. He does, at least, put life into his performance, and I appreciate that.
It’s sort of hard to say that anyone’s acting was bad. Everyone’s bad, but more from writing than anything individualized. It struck me very hard about midway through the film that the best performance here was the guy playing Lee Ioccoca. Not that the actor was markedly better, just that the writing wasn’t, I don’t know, trying so damn hard. Maybe I was wrong about the accent, maybe it’s just that everything feels fake here. There’s not a chance to suspend disbelief and enjoy a story because I’m constantly tripping over totally unnecessary, sloppy, and worst-of-all predictable writing and bad, bad, bad racing sequences.
Right right right, the racing. Obviously there’s only so much you can do there because the cars on display here, well, they’re not going to be willing to use the real thing for this stuff. I get it, CGI had to happen. But it looks far too plastic. It would clearly have had better rendering power than any normal video game console but somehow it looks less real and less appealing than something like Forza Motorsport does. To be honest I’m not sure I could put my finger on why. Maybe there’s a sort of uncanny valley effect for cars that I hadn’t realized.
And for sure the digital choreography on display is more exciting than most real races are… you only have a few minutes on screen, you don’t have a chance to let a 24 race play out properly… but this is still far too crowded and cramped and rushed.
It’s sort of a completely predictable changeover, then, that the point doesn’t become beating those Ferrari guys: it becomes beating those snooty executives at Ford who don’t have the good old fashioned grit and gumption to go over 6000rpm (a critical plot point) and win the races. And then after that, you beat the Ferrari guys.
When I first started watching, I struggled with my desire to give up at the 10 minute mark. I commented on this and someone who’d seen it before me told me it was the perfect ‘dad’ movie. That it was meant to appeal exclusively to the guys with wood-paneled dens that has a lot of opinions on the good old days and how things used to be and how maybe they shouldn’t have to wear their seat belt if they don’t want to. Viewing it from that lens, yes, I can see how that would make sense. What doesn’t make sense with that lens is why this was so highly rated by critics. This film is absolute trash. The reviews that pop up for it on RottenTomatoes (where it’s scoring a 92%?!) are uncritical, lazy snippets that are the perfect sort to end up on a DVD case that will be added to an increasingly dusty collection in the aforementioned wood-paneled dens. That said, it’s also up for Best Picture at the Oscars. Notably, it’s not up for any variety of Best Acting, Best Director, Best Screenplay, etc. Just Best Picture, and some effects stuff. Funny, that.
Oh, also it’s two and a half hours long, which is fucking ridiculous. You reach a point where the director is just huffing his own farts and needs to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and sent back into the editing booth.
Do you want a good racing movie? Fire up Steve McQueen’s Le Mans. There’s no dialogue except for TV announcers for 37 minutes and for all that it carries far more weight than this trash possibly could. I’ve hyped it before once or twice, but that’s because it’s worth it. The racing is in the foreground and it’s allowed to tell its own story: there’s no forced subplot about executives being assholes. There’s a clear rivalry that plays out at speed, no dialogue needed.
It’s not like it’s the greatest racing film of all time, but it’s a far better example of the genre.