In 1971, actor and perilously cool individual Steve McQueen willed into existence a film about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most important event in international sport car racing; it is titled simply Le Mans, and it is, equally simply, one of the great race movies in history. It is mercilessly clean, focusing intently on the physicality of racing, capturing astonishing images from the heart of the face, and transforming them into what amounts to a cinematic collage depicting the pure sensation of speed, through the application of Michel Legrand's excellent musical score. It is one of the greatest impressionistic movies of the sound era, if I can be so blunt about it, and it would do to strike a cold chill in the heart of any filmmaker interested in making their own take on the race at Le Mans.

I bring this up because, 48 years later, somebody has tried.* And probably not as a conscious choice, the filmmakers involved have gone about as far in the opposite direction of Le Mans as you could. Whereas that film is a spare, focused celebration of pure automotive movement, the new Ford v Ferrari is an indulgent, sprawling character drama - really, it's not even about the race except as a conspicuous structuring phantom that serves as the ever-distant goal for the main characters as they go about their cluttered lives filled with personal regret and bureaucratic backbiting. Heck, that's even what the title is pointing to, really: not Ford and Ferrari duking it out on the track, but in the halls of corporate power and on the drawing board (in almost every country besides its home in the United States, the film has been released as Le Mans '66, which is in some ways a better title and in all ways a misleading one).

But even that's not what the film is really about. This is, above all things, the story of two middle-aged men who've been granted a chance to do something special and true and beautiful that they both believe in. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former racer - the first American to ever win Le Mans, in 1959 - who has been forcibly retired due to a heart condition; he has since made a semi-satisfying living selling custom sports cars to rich people in Los Angeles. Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an engineer and racer, owns a small garage in L.A., and over the course of his career, he's managed to alienate just about everybody other than Shelby with his hotheaded attitude and refusal to abide by the arbitrary rules that make the business world go 'round. The both of them end up in the right place at the right time when Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), at the urging of his forward-thinking head of marketing, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), decides to go all-in on having the Ford Motor Company build a world-class racing team, the better to recapture the heart of the teenage Baby Boomers who have plenty of spending money, a love of all things cool, and a general notion that Chevys are sexier than Fords. The idea being, if Ford can beat the legendary car designers at Ferrari by winning Le Mans, it will impart some measure of Euro-chic fashion to the squat all-American company.

The result of all this is possibly cinema history's first car-design procedural, and as long as it stays there, it's pretty damn satisfying. The three-person screenwriting team of Jez & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller have landed on something intriguingly cynical about how it's hard but not impossible to do meaningful work crafting something personal and sincere in the face of grubby corporate leaders who care about art or artlessness only insofar as it points towards profit;† honestly, one of the larger surprises of the movie, to me was that a film that implicit takes Ford's side in the matter of Ford versus Ferrari would leave so little doubt as to its feelings towards Henry Ford II (who is presented as a wobbly sack of angry jowls in Letts's campy performance) or Ford executive vice president Leo Beebe (played by Josh Lucas as the most bug-eyed caricature of humanity in a film where the acting tends towards maximalism). We flatly hate these people, we're never invited to think kindly of Ford itself - the iconic Mustang is treated as the punchline to an extended rant, with no chance to defend itself - and everything about the film, from the Marco Beltrami/Buck Sanders score to Phedon Papamichael's sunny cinematography, noticeably opens and loosens up when it allows itself just to focus on Shelby, Ken, and their associates (the best of whom is a warm-hearted old-timer played to perfection by the movie's secret MVP, Ray McKinnon), the true believers in the beauty of automobiles amidst craven bureaucrats.

So that's solid. It is the kind of movie for which solidity is its main goal, at that. The film was directed by James Mangold, whose name has come to represent, to me, a certain promise of solidity ever since his infinitely-better-than-it-should-be Western remake 3:10 to Yuma back in 2007. He makes the very best version of movies that suburban dads watch on cable on Saturday afternoons, and by all means, a film that starts out talking about how to design cars and ends with a protracted sequence in which those cars are raced is the quintessence of a dad movie. And a very good one, at that; the scenes of watching men furrowing their brows and talking about the weight distribution of engine blocks have the merits of being very specific and reasonably unfamiliar from other movies, giving them an interesting, offbeat, "this is how things get made" novelty, while the driving scenes are superb. And I do say "driving scenes", not "racing scenes", since the film has both, and its inevitable climax at Le Mans isn't at all the best one. I actually think my favorite part was the opening, in which we see Shelby's memory, or dream, or hallucination, of his own Le Mans victory: the shots out the front of the car have an unusual foreshortened quality, like they were using a telephoto lens or something, to make the road seem unreasonably close and in our face, while the shots of Shelby in the car are all close-ups and medium close-ups from snug angles that allow him to dominate our field of view in a manner extremely uncommon for movies with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's not exactly a "you are behind the wheel of the car" feeling, since this also feels notably unreal, but it does feel like we are directly face to face with the psychology of someone whose vision is going wonky from so many hours driving a car in circles. It's a wonderful scene, and while it sets a standard that the rest of the movie doesn't live up to, the remaining racing and testing sequences are all fine examples of the form.

So that gets us around two-thirds of the way through the movie's 152 minutes. The other half is just, sorry for the cheap way of putting it, boring. And here is where we enter anti-Le Mans territory. That film stripped out everything, making the film as light and maneuverable as the cars that have been ruthlessly engineered down to the ounce. Ford v Ferrari goes all-in on character drama: not just the plot-driving conflict between Shelby and Ken on one side, the Ford brass on the other side, but on the roiling psychology underpinning this; it also gives Ken a fully-developed, though still curiously hollow family drama, with a supporting, tart-tongued wife (Caitriona Balfe) and wide-eyed son (Noah Jupe) living in constant terror of his father's death in a fireball. And this material simply doesn't work. Maybe this is because the actors (other than McKinnon and Bernthal, who don't matter anyway) are all openly playing cartoons, especially Damon, who gets lost miles deep into an unstable Texan accent. Maybe this is because the screenwriters really didn't care, and just plugged the bare minimum of human drama necessary to make this part of the movie function at all. Maybe because this isn't Mangold's forte: his best work is all in tightly-coiled muscular stand-offs. Lots of maybes. But one definitely: at two and a half goddamn hours, Ford v Ferrari is definitely too long, and definitely too slow and baggy and bloated. Not that the running time is a problem per se; the great 1966 racing masterpiece Grand Prix is longer still. But Ford v Ferrari fills up far too much of that running time with material that simply isn't in any way interesting, productive, or emotionally honest, and as good as the highlight reel version of this movie is, the actual version that has been actually released to theaters drags something horrible.

Want more thoughts on the movie? Check out Rob and Carrie's video review, and Catherine's notes on the film's ending!




*In fact, this is the third film about 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2003, there was a certain Michel Vaillant, produced and written by Luc Besson, but it was a flop and does not appear to have been released in any English-speaking territory.




†Ford v Ferrari, by the way, has been brought to you by 20th Century Fox, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company.