Boys Will Be Boys in Ford v Ferrari

 newyorker.com  11/08/2019 10:02:15   Anthony Lane

Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in James Mangolds film of rivalry at the Le Mans race of 1966.

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

It would be a shame if Ford v Ferrari were to attract an audience composed of no one but motorheads. The title doesnt help. In some countries, the movie is being released as Le Mans 66, which isnt much better. Its undeniable that cars, or discussions of cars, feature in almost every scene, and that one car is pushed so close to its limits that its wheels, inside their rims, glow like the heart of a forge; yet this is not, in essence, an automotive film. Its a film about prideabout being as proud of your own flesh and blood as you are of your metal machines, and about the craziness that flares up whenever pride gets hurt.

Exhibit A: the face of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Its the mid-nineteen-sixties, and weve just seen Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), in his Italian stronghold, brusquely reject a takeover bid from Ford. The bad news is brought back to the boss. Told of Ferraris insults, he doesnt flinchnot, that is, until the final jab, as reported by an underling: Youre not Henry Ford. Youre Henry Ford II. That does it. That hits home. His expression is that of every favored child, through the ages, who has inherited a shining crown and fears, deep down, that he doesnt deserve it. He is the prince, stuck in the shadow of the king and seeking to cast his own light. Letts, who as a performer and a playwright has grown scarily wise to the embodiments of power, tightens his features and sets his jaw. His eyes, as hard as stones, are a declaration of war.

Battle is to be joined on the racetrack at Le Mans. Ferrari, who has won the fabled twenty-four-hour race four times in the past five years, must and will be dethroned. No pressure. To that end, Ford brings in Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who was a co-driver in the Aston Martin that won Le Mans in 1959, and who will now attend to the birth of a new vehicle, specifically designed to be a Ferrari-whipper. And Shelby, in turn, will bring in Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who is swifter than any other driver on the circuit and more stubborn than is good for him. Think of him as the worlds quickest mule.

Ford v Ferrari is directed by James Mangold, and it may be his strongest film. Since his dbut, Heavy (1995), hes been drawn toward abrasionto the talent, or the weakness, that people have for rubbing against each other. Of late, in his Marvel offerings, The Wolverine (2013) and Logan (2017), such emotional roughness has coarsened into raw violence, and Im glad to say that, in the new movie, balance is restored; the rub goes on, primarily between Shelby and Miles, and sparks keep flying, but there are moments of surprising quietude. When Miles is informed that he wont be driving at Le Mans in 1965, on the ground that, as one company executive puts it, hes not a Ford man, he doesnt ignite. He nods, accepts the decision, and stays in America, tinkering with engines, and listening to the race on the radio. Inside, of course, his soul is revving up, fuelled by the humiliation. His time will come.

Bale is a cussed and calculating actor, yet hes never been more likable than he is herean irony to relish, since the character he plays makes so little effort to be liked. Miles is a Brit, from the fringe of Birmingham, with an accent of impermeable glumness. Chin up, mouth down: the basic demeanor of the mutinous. The idea of his obeying corporate strategy at Ford, let alone taking on the mighty glamour of Ferrari, is itself an excellent joke. (Shelby, played by Damon at his most chipper, is more pliable. Being a Texan, though, and rarely hatless, he is anything but a pushover.) Mangold adds an unexpected grace note, for Miles has a wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and a son, Peter (Noah Jupe), both of whom he adores. Indeed, the three of them constitute what will be, for current moviegoers, a bewildering rarity: the non-sappy happy family.

Balfe, though she doesnt have a heap of screen time, is forceful in all she does. Annoyed with Ken, Mollie guns their station wagon at such a furious clip that even he, seated beside her, begs her to slow down. And Balfe is there again, in the movies best sceneno cars, no crowds, simply a sunny day in suburbia. Shelby shows up at the Miles residence, and Ken, who has a beef with him, clonks him on the nose; soon the two of them are slugging it out on a patch of grass across the street. Mollie emerges, takes one look, and, instead of rushing over to stop them, fetches herself a garden chair andcalmly settles down witha copy of Better Living to watch the bout unfold. She sees these men for what they truly are. Boys will be boys, however fast their toys.

The more dangerous fight is reserved for the trackfor many tracks, from Willow Springs, an hour or so north of Los Angeles, to Daytona, and thus, climactically, to the course at Le Mans. Shelby calls it eight and a half miles of country road, and hes right. The scrap between the leading teams is surreal as well as punchy, with the Ford and the Ferrari hurtling between green fields, so close to each other that the drivers can swap snarls. Even now, for all the snap of the editing, we feel that were watching a character study strapped into an action flick. Drive like you mean it is Miless motto, and here, in France, he means business. Not the business of the Ford Motor Company, or the cramped Oedipal dealings of its chief, but the more pressing business of being Ken Miles, to the max.

There are only two downsides to this bracing tale. One, it could use a trim; the clash between our dynamic heroes and the stiff suits in the boardroom doesnt need to be hammered home. And, two, strangely, Mangold misses a trick. The car developed by Shelby, and piloted by Miles, is the GT40. All that concerns them, understandably, is its pace and its powers of endurance, and when, beside the grid at Le Mans, they spot the Ferraris, resplendent in their scarlet plumage, Miles remarks, If this were a beauty pageant, we just lost. Not so. The GT40 was the most beautifulsome would say the only beautifulcreature ever to bear the badge of Ford, and certainly the only one that could look a Ferrari in the headlamps and not blink. Le Mans 66 was never merely a matter of speed and pride; it was also, in retrospect, a contest to ravish the eye. If you cant make that clear in a major motion picture, where can you?

A man walks into a hotel. Wakey, wakey, he says. The lights come on. He descends to the basement and fires up the boiler, then takes a tour of the rooms. The door to one of the bathrooms bears a jagged hole, through which the man shows his anxious face. He seems to know his way around. Its almost as if hes been here before.

The man is Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), the hotel is the Overlook, and the movie is Mike Flanagans Doctor Sleep, a sequel of sorts to Stanley Kubricks The Shining. Its been nearly forty years since we saw Danny, then a small boy, flee from his axe-wielding father, Jack, through a snowbound maze. After such trauma, its no wonder that the intervening decades have been unkind to Danny, leaving him soused in alcohol and beached in gloom. Bravely, he strives to remake himself, quitting the bottle and taking a room in a small New Hampshire town. He even gets a job in a hospice. One thing he hasnt lost is the shinethe ability to peer into the minds of others, including frightened souls at their last gasp.

Meanwhile, a gang of predators stalk the land. They eat screams and drink pain, we learn, and their commander is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson): a dandy, a wit, and a practiced murderess. We observe their handiwork, and its all gore and gloat; one sequence, involving the torment of a child, strikes me as dramatically inexcusable. Their crimes are tracked, from afar, by a telepathic teen-ager named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose shining is of the brightest kindlike G.P.S. but in my head, as she puts it. She uses it to locate Danny, and to share her findings with him. Together, they go to meet the evil face to face.

Fans of the original film love to pry into its every nook, with a wild surmise as to Kubricks intentions. (The 2012 documentary Room 237 offers a diverting survey of such theories.) The sequel serves up plenty for specialists to chew on, not least a Jack Nicholson look-alikeinsofar as thats possiblebehind the hotel bar, yet these semi-reconstructions betray an odd sense of superfluity and strain. The movie demands that the adult Danny pay a visit to old haunts, but does he really need to?

Doctor Sleep reminds me of another follow-up, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), being drawn out, dutiful toward its source, and so disconsolate, at times, that it verges on the depressing. Theres also a lack of geographic focus; whereas Kubrick homed in on the Overlook and pretty much stayed there, Flanagans film is all over the place, crossing restively from state to state. Rose can even travel above the clouds, in a disembodied trance. (So why does she have to arrive at the finale by car?) Luckily, Ferguson is fabulous in the role. She and Curran take possession of the tale and save it with sprightliness; their smiles arise without warning. I only wish that Rose had been around when Jack Torrance was on the rampage. What a lovely couple theyd have made.f

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