Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA/France, 2019. Chernin Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Produced by Peter Chernin, James Mangold, Jenno Topping. Music by Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders. Production Design by Francois Audouy. Costume Design by Daniel Orlandi. Film Editing by Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker, Dirk Westervelt. Academy Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
By the early sixties, Ford Motors is seeing a slump in sales under the direction of the innovative industrialist’s exasperated grandson, who needs to boost the company’s corporate reputation. When an attempt to buy the struggling Ferrari company ends in rejection and insults, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) follows Lee Iacocca’s advise to move into the world of sports cars and enter the Le Mans Grand Prix, vowing to build a vehicle that will beat his Italian rival at their own game. Former race car driver turned car designer and salesman Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is tasked with creating the machine that will be the company’s winner, and he chooses his best buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive it, a man with a temper problem who is also the best driver he knows. The suits at Ford balk at the choice of Miles, whose explosive personality often results in ugly conflicts on the track, and do their best to make Shelby buckle under, but these two eventually find themselves on French roads preparing for an intense 24 hour race. This exciting, gorgeously photographed biopic presents some of the best racing scenes ever displayed on film, director James Mangold puts you behind the steering wheel and delivers a good sense of the speed that these guys travel at without ever letting it feel disorienting. Unlike Grand Prix’s poor balance of drama and action, this one gets as much mileage out of the chemistry between the two leads, whose good-natured friendship is endlessly watchable, as it does from the almost pornographic enjoyment of the rubber-burning action, which charts the historic moment that changed American car ownership forever (and resulted in the creation of the Mustang). Bale, whose extreme efforts in transforming into a character often result in admirable performances that also remove him from any kind of intimacy with his audience, has never been more endearing, his Miles is exasperating and unreasonable but always chummy and heroic. His relationships with wife Caitriona Balfe and son Noah Jupe never feel like cheap ploys at nuclear family affirmation but set up genuine stakes for the glory he is trying to achieve in a life overwhelmed with unkind setbacks; it’s relieving that Bailfe’s role avoids “Honey come to bed” clichés and has her actually enjoying her husband’s work, rather than the anti-femaleness that this kind of movie usually practices in needing her to be taught to appreciate it (this won’t soothe the ache of anyone who is bothered by her rarely being more than an adjunct to his existence, but it might help the F grade on the Bechdel test go down a bit smoother). The main flaw in Mangold’s otherwise pristine scripting is his focusing all the corporate resistance to Shelby and Miles’ passion project on one character, played by Josh Lucas as a sniveling brat in a business suit who is given bad hair to make him less handsome than he was in his faux-McConaughey attempts at romantic comedy stardom some years earlier. There’s an actual tale that could be told in this movie of the American business world’s inhumane treatment of Americans, building up an economic empire while fully ignoring individual achievements and placing the importance of a marketing department’s fictional narrative high above the real heroic moments that can’t be packaged as easily into an advertisement, the story that is basically America’s post-war economic victory. Whittling it down to one villainous character who makes it his personal mission to have things go against our heroes denies the actually corrosive system that has brought the country to where it is today, but a movie, as a corporate product itself, needs to not bite the hands that feeds it, and given that, this oversimplification is not that shocking.