If justice is done, James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” will soon make history as the first of more than one hundred movies about the sport of auto racing to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s not that Oscar has been unkind to racing movies, it’s that “FvF” is the first one that deserves to be included.
I was an auto racing executive in the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies and knew some of the people involved in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans that is the focus of Mangold’s movie, and it gets the tone, period and competitive nature of the drivers right. It also does justice to the relationship between car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British-American driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who are the center of the story.
A close friend and former associate of mine named Bob Thomas knew both men very well and in a recent exchange of emails, he said “FvF” left him in tears.
“I can’t possibly do a critique of the movie, except to comment that it did bridge the gap for audiences — between those who knew the players and those who didn’t. So, I wouldn’t categorize or minimize it as a motorsports movie. If I did, however, I would rank it No. 1 among them. More, though, it was a people film, or something to reach everybody.”
It was not only possible for Thomas to critique the movie, he nailed its appeal as succinctly as anyone. “FvF” manages to balance its human elements, the relationship between Shelby and Miles and the rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari, with its technical elements, the development of the Ford GT-40 and the race itself, in a way that leaves no one out.
Getting my wife to watch a sports action movie with me is usually as successful as getting her to watch a soccer match with me, and when I told her ‘”FvF” was about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, she worried that it might feel as long as the race. But she did go with me and came away saying it felt shorter than its two and half hours.
For a piece I wrote for the L.A. Times before I saw “FvF,” I went back and watched more than a dozen of the higher profile race movies and it was a slog. Despite the A-list casting of films like “Winning” (Paul Newman), “Le Mans” (Steve McQueen), “Grand Prix” (James Garner), “Red Line 7000” (James Caan) and “Days of Thunder” (Tom Cruise), they made the common mistakes of mythologizing drivers and exaggerating the violence of racing.
I knew a lot of drivers from the period of “FvF” and there were no mythic auras around any of them. They didn’t talk about death, they didn’t think about death, they thought only of winning, yet in just about every auto racing movie, you sense the Grim Reaper around every turn. And the most abused cliché of these movies has been the love triangle, two racers risking their lives for the love of a woman. Most of the drivers I knew had families and only worried about beating their rivals for a trophy and prize money.
There are a couple of comically broad scenes in Mangold’s movie that made both Thomas and I cringe, but which are big moments of comic relief for audiences. They were only grating to me because they are false notes in a true story. But I niggle. “FvF” is an exceptional movie and one that should take a spot on the coming Oscar ballot.
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