“Don’t let real facts get in the way—it’s Hollywood.” So said the man who introduced the special screening I saw of James Mangold’s hotly anticipated new film, Ford v Ferrari, which hits theaters November 15.
Viewed through a documentarian’s lens, there’s a great deal missing and/or wrong with the movie. For instance, Carroll Shelby was a head taller than Matt Damon. Having met Carroll twice, I never bought Damon as Shelby. It shoulda been Vince Vaughn. He’s a more appropriate 6-foot-5, does a great Southern drawl, and he’s even got curly brown hair.
Moreover, there wasn’t a single blonde female pictured on Shelby’s arm, a glaring inaccuracy by all accounts. Also, the legendary Kiwi Denny Hulme, Ken Miles’ codriver at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, was barely on screen, and I think his first name was uttered once. Maybe.
The biggest omission, from an overly pedantic, car-nut perspective, is that Ford v Ferrari doesn’t even acknowledge the quite real Shelby/Ferrari feud, nor that Carroll and his crew won the GT class (beating il Grande Vecchio’s 250 GTOs) while coming in fourth overall at the 1964 Le Mans race. That stuff’s just not there.
But forget all that stuff. Allow your nerd rage to subside. Instead, let’s look to another filmmaker—the great Werner Herzog—for the proper lens through which to view Ford v Ferrari.
In 1999, Herzog released his Minnesota Declaration, 12 principles about his view of truth vis-a-vis documentaries. The whole thing is worth reading (especially the part about then governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura). But his fifth principle is most illuminative here: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”
Viewed through Herzog’s prism, Mangold’s new film is freaking awesome. You’re gonna love it.
The story is: In order to sex up the Ford brand, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) knows in his gut that baby boomers find racing cool. As such, he convinces Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to try to buy nearly bankrupt Ferrari. However, Il Commendatore (Remo Girone), never intends to sell out to an American company that makes “ugly little cars.”
Instead, Enzo uses Ford’s offer to get Fiat to invest/save his company. Infuriated, Hank the Deuce hires Shelby and his company to go to Le Mans and “bury that [unkind slur for Italians] 100 feet below the starting line.” Shelby and his driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale), along with Shelby chief engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon) and Ford engineer Roy Lunn (JJ Field), have a few months to build the Ford GT40, a race car that would (eventually) become the most dominant of its era, and one of the most significant cars of all time.
The filmmaking is fantastic. The performances are A-list across the board (Bale certainly will be nominated for Best Actor). The cars (Mk II GT40s, Ferrari 330 P3s, Porsche 906 Carreras, plus uncountable Cobras and Daytonas) are the stuff car dreams are made of. Most significant, the storytelling shines and sizzles.
And if we’re talking about sound, it thumps. Do you like the meaty thunder of American V-8s and killer bee screams of Italian V-12s? I insist you see this one in a proper theater. Thank me later.
The racing sequences are impressive, striking the right balance between realism and stylization. For instance, in order to go faster, Miles shifts up to a higher gear (Fast and Furious fans take note). I promise, the driving stuff is excellent, especially once they get to the Great Race and all the rubbing, bumping, and crashing that ensues at Le Mans, year after year.
As biopics go, I love the nuance on display. Hank the Deuce isn’t portrayed as 100 percent good, nor is Enzo Ferrari a pure villain. The great Phil Remington, a personal hero of mine, is given ample screen time. You’ll know the scene when you see it, but Phil saves the entire Le Mans effort armed only with a hammer.
In drama, you need an antagonist, and the roll of villain falls to Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the director of Ford Special Vehicles. Without giving too much away, Beebe doesn’t like Shelby much, and he absolutely detests Miles. Why? He’s not a Ford man. To be fair, the way Miles is portrayed in the film makes him unlovable, which, according to what I know, ain’t how Miles was in real life. Again, it’s a film, not a documentary.
I recently had a chat with Ian Callum—the former head of design for Jaguar—about why he stopped judging concours events. Basically, he grew disillusioned with anal-retentive judges not voting for what’s obviously the best car on the lawn because some of the screws’ head patterns are wrong.
What Shelby, Miles, Remington, and Lunn (and Hulme!) did is so important, amazing, and wonderful that the ecstatic truth of their story deserves the largest audience possible. If that means a too-short Shelby and a grumpy Miles, so be it. Back to Herzog, “By dint of declaration, the so-called cinema verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” If there’s one thing accountants hate, it’s racing. If there’s one thing you’ll come away in love with after watching Ford v Ferrari, it’s racing, too.
Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.