In 1963, the Vice President of the Ford Motor Company, Lee Iacocca, makes an interesting proposition to Henry Ford II. To boost car sales, they are to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. To do this, they will purchase the famed manufacturer Ferrari – the latter company being strapped for cash. However, the founder, Enzo Ferrari, opts to walk out of the deal when Fiat offers an alternative that allows him to retain ownership of the Scuderia Ferrari. With one final insult to Ford, the executives are sent on their way. Enraged at this slight, Henry II immediately orders his racing division to build a car capable of defeating Ferrari at Le Mans.
Going by the name alone, it’s easy for one to get the impression Ford v Ferrari will be about just that. A scrappy ragtag team of underdogs that comprise the Ford manufacturing division triumphs over the snobbish Ferrari. However, actually delving into the film reveals that the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari is a mere backdrop for the real story. In fact, Ferrari himself has very little screen time. Instead, it is a story of two men forming a friendship over their mutual love for motorsports. By the time it reaches its end, their exploits will be the talk of legends.
One of the story’s protagonists is former racing driver Carroll Shelby. He was Iacocca’s first choice to commandeer the new vehicle Ford is to enter in Le Mans. Considering that he won Le Mans in 1959, he would be an ideal choice for such a task. Unfortunately, due to a heart condition, he was forced to retire. Still determined to help out, he manages to find someone with just the kind of enthusiasm for cars required to see this project through.
Enter the story’s second protagonist, Ken Miles. Miles is a hot-tempered mechanic from Sutton Coldfield struggling to make ends meet. Nonetheless, his knowledge of cars is all too real. Once Shelby recruits him, Miles is able to work out the design flaws of the Ford GT40 Mk I prototype. Even after doing so, Ford’s drivers, Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren, are unable to finish the race when they enter the 1964 Le Mans. This causes Henry II to lose faith in the project, but Shelby points out that the Mk I reached 218 mph (miles per hour) before breaking down.
With nobody else up for the task, Miles decides to enter the race himself. He is nearly killed when the brakes fail during testing, causing Henry II to lose faith in the project. Shelby then gives Henry II a ride in the car before proceeding to wager his own company to convince the latter that Miles can win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Sure enough, Miles wins the race when he pushes the car to the absolute limits, achieving 7,000 RPM (revolutions per minute).
Because the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari is intended to be a backdrop, it is highly appropriate that the underlying themes are a bit more esoteric than one would expect. While the main duo does indeed end up accomplishing a task that will ensure them their place in history, it comes with a price. As it is, Ford v Ferrari is as much a depiction of a historical sports landmark as it is an allegory for intrusive executive politics. By 1966, Leo Beebe, the Ford Senior Vice President had taken over the racing division. His original intent was to continue the program without Miles due to a grudge he held against him. Once it becomes clear he cannot get rid of Miles, he proceeds to pull out all the stops to sabotage him. During the 1966 Le Mans race in which Miles is competing, he tells him to finish alongside two other Ford drivers for a three-man photo finish to commemorate the historical moment.
One might wonder exactly how Beebe accomplishes this task without coming across as a massive hypocrite. The answer is that he doesn’t. He berates Shelby and his team for not being team players by refusing his orders, yet has no qualms sabotaging his own side’s chances of winning for the sake of a cheap PR stunt. Worst of all, when Miles does decide to comply, Bruce McLaren is declared the winner in his stead due to having technically driven a longer distance as a result of starting the race in an inferior position. Tragically, Miles wouldn’t get another chance to prove himself. Just two months later, he died in a crash after the brakes on the J-car he was testing gave out.
The result of these developments is a story that has a surprising amount of applicability. With the confusing, obstructive, and oftentimes self-contradictory systems working against Shelby and Miles, many people had interpreted the film as an allegory for director James Mangold himself. Like several other directors, he had to take cues from studio notes, thus reducing his creative vision, so as to get his projects funded. I myself find this story parallels that of the famous rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. With Edison having taken credit for many of Tesla’s innovations, the former ended up in a better way, dying with millions of dollars to his name. Much like Tesla, Miles had to settle for being named second in the history books.
Similar to how Tesla was ultimately rediscovered and is now rightly recognized as one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century, Miles proceeded to have an afterlife that made him a legend. Despite his short career, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2001. Moreover, as a result of this film, he will become significantly more famous than the person who actually won the race. Consequently, this film could be seen as a metaphor for the many times innovative works of art lost to flashier competition only to amass a following that overshadowed the victors’. Notably, for his part, Enzo recognizes Miles as the true winner of the competition, reflecting the latter’s current status among motorsports fans.
Being a Hollywood production of the late-2010s and starring several big-name actors, it’s easy to dismiss Ford v Ferrari as something cinephiles would dub a popcorn flick. Although it is admittedly a fairly formulaic biographical feature, Ford v Ferrari does have more to offer than that. It’s a story that shows how the power of teamwork can defy the odds and triumph. At the same time, the narrative is a bit more grounded than most examples in how it depicts the boardroom culture of Ford. By the end, you have to wonder who the true antagonist is. Having such a grey morality makes Ford v Ferrari a very atypical work when compared to its contemporaries, and it is well worth watching – even to those uninterested in motorsports.
Final Score: 7/10