Engineering and Disingenuity
We seem to be going through a period notable for an unusual number of a films supposedly based on true events, and also quite a few for which the paying customer certainly gets their money's worth (and I'm not even talking about insanely long Argentinian art-house movies which no sane person would contemplate actually watching). These two trends come together for Emmerich's Midway, and perhaps even more so for James Mangold's Le Mans '66 (also trading under the title Ford v Ferrari in some territories). These two films share something else, in that they both seem to be firmly aimed at an unreconstructedly male audience. Fighter pilots! Racing drivers! Can things get any more hetero-normative?
Not that there's anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. I am guessing that Mangold has been allowed to indulge himself with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time more because his last film made over $600 million than on the strength of his track record as a director (which is generally pretty decent, albeit with the occasional significant wobble), but this is – for the most part – one of his more impressive movies.
It must be said that he takes his time setting up all the pieces, though. The film opens in the early 1960s, with the Ford Motor Company experiencing a significant drop in sales. Sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has the idea of making the brand more sexy and alluring by orchestrating a merger with the legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari, but the wily Italians outmanoeuvre the American company. In the end the decision is made to boost Ford's profile by attempting to win the famous endurance race at Le Mans.
To run the new team they recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing driver and Le Mans winner forced to retire on health grounds. Shelby is a bit dubious about where Ford fully understand just what it is they're attempting to do, but this is nothing compared to the outright skepticism of the man Shelby brings onto the team as a driver and engineer: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a fiercely individualistic and contrary British racer.
Development of the new car goes reasonably well, but soon tensions become apparent within the project: Miles views it solely as a racing endeavour, and is his usual uncompromising self, while the suits in the company retain their usual attitude of corporate groupthink and treat it solely as a marketing exercise (which to some extent it is). Shelby finds himself caught in the middle of these clashing worldviews, attempting to reconcile them. And this is before they even go to France…
As noted, this is a film pitching for a certain demographic, concerning as it does motor racing and male friendship (the relationship between Shelby and Miles is at the centre of the film). The only significant female character is Miles' wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, who to be fair does a good job with the material she's been given. On the whole the film is quite successful in hitting the targets it sets for itself – the racing sequences are often genuinely thrilling, and the warmth between the two men certainly rings true.
In a sense it kind of reminds me of The Fighter, from 2010 (I qualify this because that's a film I've never actually seen) – Bale was widely acclaimed for the very bold and committed performance he gave in that film, for which he himself gave credit to Mark Wahlberg: without a solid performance at the centre of the movie, Bale wouldn't have been able to push his own turn quite as far as he did. So it is here as well: Matt Damon, as the world has come to know well, has developed into a very reliable and capable leading man, with impressive chops as both an actor and a movie star. He is on his usual good form here. Bale is also doing his thing to great effect – on this occasion he is almost off the leash as Ken Miles. Never before have I heard the Brummie accent deployed quite so forthrightly in a major studio picture, and Bale finds humour and pathos in his depiction of an immensely talented man who just hasn't got it in him to play the game in the way he would need to in order to achieve the success he deserves.
Here we come to the crux of the film. You might expect this to turn out to be a fairly grisly 152 minute commercial for Ford Motors – the focus is very much on them, with Ferrari only really touched on despite their prominence in the international title of the film. However, the central conflict isn't so much Ford against Ferrari as the Ford suits against the drivers and mechanics running the company's racing team. This is not a very flattering portrayal of Ford management, with the possible exception of Iacocca (that said, for all his prominence in the advertising, Jon Bernthal doesn't get a lot to do a the film goes on): there's a real sense in which Ford executives are the bad guys in this film. The message of the film is that individual genius and eccentricity is good, and focus-grouped management-speak group-think is bad.
Well, that would be fine, but I do find the film a little disingenuous on this front. Why is this film called one thing in the UK and another in the US? I am guessing it is because Ford vs Ferrari tested badly with British audiences and has been changed to something perceived to be a bit more appealing. It's all very well for the film to present itself as being all anti-corporate, but this is just the same as in all those films where stressed out city slickers discover the secret of true happiness is living a quiet bucolic existence out in the countryside. I don't see many Hollywood studio executives or movie stars chucking it all in to live on a farm, and I imagine we won't see many Hollywood studios taking the kind of bold risks and employing unpredictable, temperamental talents the way this film suggests motor companies should. It's just a pose, but I should say the film-makers have cracked how to fake sincerity.very convincingly.
And it is, I should stress, very entertaining stuff, though it feels like many of the best bits have ended up in the various trailers. This is a big, meaty movie, with some good performances, a smart script, and a good sense of time and place. My only real issue with the movie itself is that after being knockabout comedy-drama stuff for the vast majority of its running time, there's an attempt at a shift in tone right at the very end that feels like it's trying to edge this film into quality drama territory and potentially turn it into an awards contender. I'm not sure it pulls it off quite well enough, but then I'm not sure it really needs to do something like that anyway. There's no shame in being a crowd-pleaser, and I think that's what this will prove to be.
Also This Week...
...Ben Berman's The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which is a hard film to write about without spoiling, so it doesn't get the main slot (it also doesn't seem to be getting a full cinema release). The film follows American comedy-magician the Amazing Johnathan as he goes out on the road for his farewell tour, which could well be complicated by the fact he has been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and could quite literally die on stage.
Sounds like the sort of thing we have seen before, but early on something happens which knocks the film onto an unexpected and very idiosyncratic trajectory. Saying much about this risks spoiling a film which is utterly engrossing and often very funny, and also manages to have the rare distinction of being completely unpredictable. The increasingly hapless director becomes a character in his own film, plagued by self-doubt and borderline paranoia; you wonder if the whole thing is actually a parodic deconstruction of modern documentary film-making. In the end I'm pretty sure it is isn't, but it raises a lot of significant and worthwhile issues while remaining fascinating and highly entertaining. Worth seeking out if you're a documentary fan.