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.
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