A recurrent theme in one of my economics classes this semester is the General Theory of Second Best, which basically says that if something cannot be perfect, trying your best to emulate perfection is often not the best way forward. Such is the case with the movie Ford v Ferrari, which contains all the components that might add up to a perfect version of itself. However, in its three and a half hour execution of all of those pieces, Ford v Ferrari ends up feeling more like a smattering of disparate ideas than it does a cohesive story — a biting criticism for a film that all but deifies mechanical harmony.
James Manigold, whose directorial history is all over the place as it is impressive and includes such films as Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma and Logan, directs Ford v Ferrari. The film stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon, as British race car driver Ken Miles and legendary automotive designer Carroll Shelby respectively, Ford v Ferrari recounts the tale of the Ford Motor Company’s entrance into, and subsequent rivalry with Ferrari, the long-reigning kings of competitive motorsports.
But Ford v Ferrari doesn’t just tell the story of Ford versus Ferrari, it also dramatizes the conflict between Shelby’s cowboy-ish nature and Ford’s rigid corporate hierarchy. And of Shelby and Miles’ at-times-rocky but ultimately heartwarming friendship. And of Miles’ complicated relationships with his wife and son. And of the rise of long-time automotive executive Lee Iacocca. And of a whole bunch of other stuff.
The problem is that the film spins such a convoluted web that many of its threads fall out of focus. We are given but the faintest hint of what sparked the animosity between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II. Despite solid acting from Caitriona Balfe, our glimpses into the Miles’ marital problems serve as a series of pit stops to which Ken is only temporarily confined. I would have hardly even noticed Iacocca’s involvement in the story if Manigold and company had not cast Jon Bernthal to play him. It seems as though the movie could have used a dose of one of its many mantras: Be lighter and faster.
Perhaps then, Ford v Ferrari is a perfect example of overly ambitious historical filmmaking. A trio of American GT40’s did beat Ferrari in 1966’s 24 Hours of Le Mans but the exploration of every single facet of Ford’s journey to that finish line likely felt more digestible in the book on which this film is based.
What really gets me is that Ford v Ferrari seems to have a damn near perfect two-hour movie living inside it. Damon and Bale are both at the heights of their powers and Manigold turns in another stellar directorial performance. On top of that, the film might well be worth watching for its race scenes alone, which were some of the best I have ever seen.
When it is in the driver’s seat, Ford v Ferrari is really more akin to something like Dunkirk, a seriously affecting film that perfectly captured the bone-rattling feeling such powerful machines could generate, than it is to any Fast & Furious film. Ford v Ferrari is still an enjoyable ride despite its near-overwhelming complexity because it makes racing as frightening as it is exhilarating.
The film manages to pack a surprising emotional punch. As Shelby put it, there are a lucky few who know what they want to do with their lives and there are even fewer who know what they need to do. Ken Miles was one of those: a veteran, a husband and a father with boundless passion for that to which he committed his life. If nothing else, Ford v Ferrari proves a worthy tribute to a man that from all accounts was one of the greats, albeit briefly.
If we can learn one thing from the story of Ken Miles, it is not to run from that which calls us. That even if we cannot hope to run every lap perfectly, meaning can be found in the attempt. While the economics says the search for absolute perfection might be fruitless, to give up is contrary to the spirit that Shelby and Miles so fervently exuded.
Nick Smith is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.