The story of how one of the world’s largest corporations set out to defeat a dedicated idealist simply because the idealist refused to sell-out to the corporation isn’t a movie anyone would want to see, except maybe the reigning generation of Fords atop the Ford Motor Company. From a distance, that is the story of Ford v. Ferrari though. Henry Ford, II wanted to buy Enzo Ferrari’s car company. Ferrari refused to sell, opting to form a partnership with Fiat instead, and so Henry Ford, II poured his infinite resources into building a car that would beat Ferrari at the race Ferrari most cared about winning, the twenty-four hour endurance race at Le Mans.
Ford v Ferrari doesn’t take that distant view though. Instead, it focuses on the men the Ford company hired to build the car that beat Ferrari – Carol Shelby, Ken Miles, and Phil Remington. They built Ford’s winning car at odds with Henry Ford, II and his team of executives throughout the entire process. They were more like Enzo Ferrari, doing hands-on, precise, detailed work guided by their intuition as much as their instruments. Their methods were antithetical to the methods of the Ford Motor Company, the company synonymous with the assembly line. So Ford v. Ferrari isn’t a story of how a giant stomped on an underdog idealist. It’s a story of how a team of underdog idealists prevailed working within the stifling climate of an immense corporation. It’s a story about what it costs an idealist to work within an institution.
The complicated relationships between the various parties are what set this film apart. Carol Shelby (Matt Damon) and the executives at the Ford Motor Company (Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, and Jon Bernthal, primarily) want the same thing on the surface – to build the best race car possible. Looking closer though, they want very different things. Shelby wants to appease everyone, both his own crew and the executives. The executives want to sell more cars, and they see winning Le Mans as a way to do that. They are in it for the publicity. So Shelby has to negotiate their marketing interests with what his team is telling him is necessary to win. You’d think those interests would align—good publicity hinges on winning after all—but experience proves otherwise. (If you have any doubt that the Ford executives are the villains in this film, note that Henry Ford, II’s introduction has him shouting at his assembly line workers for not being creative.)
Shelby’s need to negotiate with the Ford Company puts him in most direct conflict with Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles is an idealist on par with Enzo Ferrari. He only wants to do good work. He wants to build the perfect car, to race the perfect race, and he gets annoyed whenever other interests impinge upon his commitment to pursuing that perfection. Miles and Shelby are friends. Shelby understands Miles’ devotion to his craft. Miles doesn’t really understand Shelby’s need to placate the executives. If Shelby didn’t deal with the executives though, Miles wouldn’t get to build that car and race that race.
The final fascinating relationship is between Ken Miles and his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe). Ken is in his mid-forties. He’s spent his life racing with little success. Faced with insurmountable debt and a wife and child to provide for, he thinks it might be time to hang up his racing stripes and get a regular job. Mollie doesn’t want him to, because she knows he will be denying an essential part of himself if he does this. Most wives in movies like this want their husbands to do the responsible thing. It is refreshing and intriguing to see a wife character who loves her husband like Mollie loves Ken. She doesn’t coddle him. She demands that he live up to his calling. She loves him that much.
There are moments and scenes in Ford v. Ferrari that feel overly familiar, like every other mid-century pseudo-biopic you’ve ever seen. Those scenes are not bad. They are effectively delivered, but they are rote. There are many other scenes that elevate this movie to be something more than a justifiably forgettable inspirational drama. When this film is operating at its highest level—in the scenes that test those relationships and in the racing scenes—Ford v. Ferrari is really something special. It does what you expect it to do, and then suddenly, it doesn’t, and those are the moments that stick with you and prompt you to consider your own life and how faithful you are being to your ideals and how gracious you should be with the people who are on your side against the institutions that would otherwise stifle creativity (often negligently, not deliberately). Accomplishing good work requires compromise. If you are the type who can’t compromise, let those who can, who care for you, do the compromising on your behalf.