Just when you think politics is ruining everything in American life, at the very moment when we’ve all just come to assume that every movie out there will have a manipulative message designed to beat back our bourgeois sensibilities and turn them into some uplifted stage of wokeness, a movie like Ford v Ferrari comes along to restore your faith that great movies can still exist (and I need such a restoration after my disappointment with Frozen II).
There wasn’t one flex toward some politicized nonsense, not even one moment in which you are hectored or preached at about something you are doing wrong, not one line with a predictable cliche gleaned from the oppressive apparatus of critical-theory identitarianism, not one crumb given to the dogs of the left (or right, for that matter). Instead what we get is what Murray Rothbard used to call a “movie movie” by which he meant a great film designed to tell a fabulous story and inspire you again in the great human project.
For Americans in particular, this film is a tremendous homage to the best of the American spirit. The ambition. The drive to achieve. The technology. The love of progress. The hint of the best kind of nationalism that we will win simply by being better (not by cheating, not by bullying, not by taxing, bombing, and pillaging) and by competing in the most vigorous way possible. Someone out there thinks they can do it better? We can do it better. Let’s get out there and show them.
There is nothing chauvinistic about this type of competition. It’s the force within the world that points us to achieve at a level that surprises us, and then rewards us when we win. Then everyone benefits from it via inspiration, new levels of achievement, and new levels of know-how. It’s such a thrill to see through a human story what actual competition means in real life, to say nothing of industrial achievement (trashed constantly in popular culture), the affirmation of the glorious achievement of internal combustion, the magnificence of American achievements in auto building and racing, and just a fabulous human drama about life purpose.
The story begins with panic at the Ford Motor Company over the loss of domestic markets to competitors. The once-mighty company is slipping in its sales and brand loyalty. The CEO is Henry Ford, Jr., a paradigmatic embodiment of the son of the founder who lives well and wields vast power, but has very little clue about managing the vast enterprise with an eye toward entrepreneurship. He is, of course, surrounded by various bureaucrats and sycophants whose main job is to be obsequious and flatter – while keeping real talent away from the highest corporate offices.
Still, the market speaks louder than corporate pretense. You can inherit a company. But you can’t inherit a market. The market requires a constant feed of new ideas and consumer service. To fix the problem, Ford is looking for big ideas. Lee Iacocca (later with Chrysler) has the idea of taking ownership of the Italian company Ferrari but the effort fails. Determined to punish the rejection, he is talked into starting a racing division within Ford. He taps the best in the field: Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who in turn looks to his friend, the mechanical genius and expert driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
The corporate big shots (bureaucrats) don’t like Miles because he is a hothead, reckless, and not cool with the demands of the marketing department. My goodness, he might say the wrong thing to the media! So there ensues a long effort by Shelby to make sure that Miles is the main driver for the big goal of winning the famous Le Mans race for the new Ford race car, the GT40.
Every bit of the story’s drama struck me as realistic, including the difficulty of genuine rebels and geniuses fitting into a staid corporate culture with vast levels of bureaucracy and entrenched interests. We’ve all encountered these characters variously in our lives. They are there to stop innovation and stop disruption. They kill companies and drive away talent. Beating them back is harder than one might think.
On the other hand, there are two forces that demand change no matter what: the drive to compete and the demand of the market.
Now, let me be clear: though I’ve recently developed a love for these cars (an implausible affection for me), I would never see one of those car movies like Fast and Furious. I find them annoying. Even worse was the series of animated movies called Cars, which, as it turns out, was twisted (typically) into an anti-industrial screed turning a cute idea into an insufferable lecture on the evils of fossil fuels and roads. Again, I can make this promise: there is no hint of this blather at all in Ford v Ferrari. Not one.
The cinematography is beyond belief. Every bit of it was authentic, with cameras mounted to real race cars. You are often put right behind the wheel, learning even over time how incredibly difficult it is to judge speed and downshifting between curves finally to achieve that “perfect lap,” which is the golden ring of this drama. By the last third of the movie, you can smell the gas, the burning rubber, the exhaust smoke, and hot oil. You feel by the end as dirty and gritty as the mechanics and drivers. You feel that you were really part of the action the whole time.
There are many amazing moments in this very long movie that still goes by in a flash. But my favorite part is when Carroll Shelby realizes that Ford has never actually been in a race car and is therefore unable to understand the demand of talent that sitting behind the wheel actually takes. He plots to lock the bureaucrats in offices while he talks Ford into going for a ride. The car blasts around at stunning speeds and Ford begins to scream uncontrollably, before ending his short ride weeping with fear and shock. Ford at that moment acquiesces to having Miles be a driver, even if he is a dangerous soul.
The only thing slightly spooky about the film is that it is set in 1965-66. One watches this and wonders: was it then and not now? Are we so privileged and puffed up that there is no more of the drive that made America great? Have we lost our edge, such as the new president who swears to make us great “again” but is only about restoring an obsolete past and bludgeoning other upstart countries with punishing trade restrictions? Is this what we’ve come to?
I don’t believe it. This movie has 98% favorable comments on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason: it is an immense relief to see what work, creativity, drive, and achievement mean in real life. Also, this is precisely why we believe in freedom, not just for the support of human rights, not just because it produces prosperity, but mostly because it unleashes within us everything that makes us human and hence wonderful.
Plus, if you worry that the American spirit of enterprise is dead, consider that the very existence of the movie Ford v Ferrari demonstrates that it is still alive. Not everything will bend and break under the weight of insipid and spineless ideology. Sometimes you just have to stop that nonsense and make a great movie that immortalizes what it means to struggle, build, and win. That audiences and critics both have had to admit that this movie is nothing short of wonderful shows that the spirit lives still, and can be revived provided we truly care about living heroic lives.