If you read enough film writers online, you’ll see much disappointment with the fact that Hollywood studio filmmaking is only making tentpole films, a term which I think has been said enough to the point where it has kind of lost its meaning. The tentpole film, in theory anyway, was one of just a couple of films made by a studio each year which would be your high budget, low risk pictures almost guaranteed to make a ton of money. Because of the money they made, they could hold up the tent, which here is the studio, which would allow them to allocate their resources to slightly smaller, slightly riskier pictures. This isn’t where they’d make experimental film or anything like that, just films like legal thrillers, romantic comedies, or sports movies. Still fairly broad appealing pictures, but there was a wider variety of tones and genres to experience.
Lately however, studios are far more willing to just plant tentpoles in the ground and forgot they were to prop up a tent. They bankroll far more $150-200 million films than before, seeing the return on investment with them as far more profitable and secure. That is why all of those middle budget films are being made now as either independent movies with a significantly lower budget than they would be with a studio or morphed into a television series with the TV boom we’ve been having. So, when a film comes up that actually is one of these studio programmer films with a good sized budget and a couple of movie stars, it perks me up, reminding me of a time when these kinds of pictures filled cinemas all the time. Ford v Ferrari is exactly one of those pictures, a feather light but quite entertaining sports film that can please a crowd very easily.
This tells the true story of car designers/drivers Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) joining forces with Ford to develop a car to win the 24 Hours at Le Mans race. This is boiler plate stuff. Odd couple pair. Training montages. People doubting. Underdog story. Concerned yet supportive wife at home. You have seen plenty of films like it before and will see plenty more like it afterwards. This is not a bad thing however. There is a reason this kind of story gets told time and time again, particularly when told as skillfully as director James Mangold does.
Mangold’s career is one of a very reliable journeyman. His floor as a filmmaker is one who will make a serviceable, inoffensive picture. His ceiling, though, is surprisingly high as he is coming off of making one of the most interesting superhero films of the last twenty years in Logan, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (the only comic book superhero film, so far, to do so). Fox let Mangold take a risk with Logan, being an R-rated superhero film, and it paid off wildly, which is why he was given the approximately $98 million budget to make Ford v Ferrari. Given that tentpole prices have risen from one to two hundred million dollars, this actually is a mid-budget film.
The racing scenes are thrilling, often unable to tell which moments are real cars and which are computer generated (as I am sure there are plenty in the film). Mangold’s ability to capture the quick movement of the vehicles jolted me out of my seat a couple of times. You understand the layouts of the various tracks. You understand where the other cars in relation to one another. You understand the speeds, the gear changes, and how the drivers monitor every detail of the race. The sounds of the engine roaring, the tires on the track, and the moving of the gear stick place you right in the middle of the race. Spectacle with a tangible goal always feels more rewarding than for its own sake, and Mangold lays it all out beautifully.
The character work here is broad but appealing. Damon and Bale are incredibly well cast in parts that play right into their strengths. Damon is the nice guy with a sly edge, who can flash a shit-eating grin with the best of them. Bale is the overly obsessive perfectionist, but he does seem to be having fun in a way he does not really get to do that often. Tracy Letts, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning actor and playwright, has rather remarkably become the most consistent and best character actor in American film, giving the proper gravitas and humor to Henry Ford II. Caitriona Balfe is saddled with the always thankless task of playing the wife, here to Bale’s Ken Miles. She gets to have a little fun, but it’s a tough character very few have cracked how to really integrate into a film. The only person who is so broad is Josh Lucas as Ford executive Leo Beebee, the cartoonish villain of the piece who has a vendetta against Ken Miles for no reason other than he just doesn’t want to be wrong. The fault probably is not on Lucas for this. The character just gets irritating real fast, and not in a fun way.
Ford v Ferrari is not great cinema. You probably are not going to be thinking about what it means to be human or how to grow as a person after watching it. But that’s okay. This is a movie that is two and a half hours of sheer entertainment without needing you to “turn your brain off” at the door. The characters are charming and interesting enough to get you invested, and the craft is sleek and exciting. In a perfect world, this is the kind of film that would be our blockbuster, a higher quality baseline for Hollywood filmmaking. Unfortunately, what should be the norm is now an anomaly, so appreciate it even more while you have it.
Categories: New Releases