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On its surface, Ford v. Ferrari is about making American cars great again. But look underneath the hood and you’ll see this ripped-from-history story is really about making men great again. Or, better stated, cheering what masculinity is at its best.
It’s the early 1960s and the Ford Motor Co., once the pride of American industry, has become bloated and mediocre. Oh, it’s still churning out plenty of vehicles. But they’re bland, inoffensive cars crafted to shuttle families around. Nothing wrong with that, but they’re not the kind of machinery to inspire a sense of greatness.
A brash, young member of Ford’s executive team by the name of Lee Iacocca offers a solution.
Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) knows greatness isn’t achieved by committee. And that men who get the job done on the track may also be prone to throwing a few elbows. So he recruits racer-turned-car-dealer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and gives him carte blanche to craft a winning vehicle and team. Shelby, in turn, recruits the best driver he knows—cantankerous British transplant Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
Though Miles is British, there’s something quintessentially American about both him and Texan Shelby. Damon and Bale deserve Oscar nominations for fleshing out their characters’ complexities without flattening their personalities. They’re blunt, competitive, and rough-and-tumble enough to resort to fisticuffs with bags of groceries on the front lawn. (It’s the movie’s funniest scene.)
We want Shelby and Miles to win not because we want to see Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) lose. Rather, it’s because we want to see them rewarded for their daring, their steel, their willingness to risk life, limb, criticism, and coin to blaze new trails. In fact, in his own refined, Italian way, Ferrari’s drive for excellence is a mirror to theirs.
No, the real enemy is a Ford executive whose efforts to undermine Shelby’s team while taking credit for its work exemplifies a particular kind of corporate culture—the fainthearted kind that doesn’t respect individual achievement.
But don’t imagine that means Ford v. Ferrari (rated PG-13 for foul language and scenes of peril) is hostile to capitalism or to business in general. In fact, though he’s a lesser character, it’s clear that Iacocca’s vision is what makes Miles and Shelby’s work possible.
Iacocca is no race car driver with grease under his fingernails. But he’s a courageous leader, risking the wrath of those further up the food chain if it means delivering a better result. He shows that doing excellent work can also mean clearing the track to allow others to run their race unhampered.
I suspect director James Mangold, known for such similarly rugged films as Logan and Walk the Line, didn’t set out to make a rallying cry for masculinity. And maybe at a different time, when words like toxic aren’t so often used to describe men, this film wouldn’t feel so much like one. And yet unlike so many films marketed as feminist, nothing about Ford v. Ferrari hits you as a take-your-medicine, support-the-message kind of movie. It’s an exhilarating, roaring romp. And you don’t think about what its glimpse of the past says about our present culture until long after it’s already said it.
Once it has, it leaves you grateful for a God who made us male and female. Grateful that we get to live in a world where we can sigh over a Jane Austen romance one week and thrill to the antics of wild boys like Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles the next. And it makes you sad to think we might be losing it.