When Ford v Ferrari was released in theaters last November, I sadly let it pass me by. I’m an enthusiastic moviegoer generally, making my way to the movies every few weeks to see the latest comic book or sci-fi adventure unfold across the big screen—Diet Coke and Reece’s Pieces in hand—but, I just missed this particular movie.
Among the various things I heard about Ford v Ferrari at the time was that it was a “dad movie,” somehow neatly slotting in among other notable movies like Rocky, Days of Thunder, and Field of Dreams. More than a few media outlets labeled it this way, some even going so far as to blame another “dad movie,” the WWI epic, 1917, for Ford v Ferrari’s lower-than-expected box office returns and/or Academy award hopes.
I’m a dad, and I like lots of different movies, so I initially struggled to understand what precisely this terminology was trying to convey. Then last weekend, Ford v Ferrari debuted on HBO and I was finally able to watch the love letter to 1960’s racing for myself… And, now I get it. I also now understand why HBO waited until Father’s Day weekend to drop Ford v Ferrari on its massive audience.
Ford v Ferrari is an instantly-classic dad movie.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s how IMDB summarizes the plot: American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to build a revolutionary race car for Ford in order to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
While Ken Miles was unknown to me before watching the movie, Carroll Shelby wasn’t. The legend of Shelby runs deep through the 20th century automotive world, and even an uninformed motorist like me knew his name, some of his accomplishments, and wanted to learn more about his life’s work.
Additionally, Ford v Ferrari is directed by James Mangold, who’s last directorial outing resulted in 2017’s Logan, which I found to be an absolutely remarkable entry in the comic book genre. I’ve watched it about five times since seeing it in theaters and continue to appreciate its commitment to the iconic character of Wolverine. Here again, Mangold has brought his central characters to life through great casting and that all-important chemistry.
Damon and Bale embody their respective characters with relaxed ease, appearing as though they’ve been living as these two men for years. It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that they’re veteran actors with vast bodies of celebrated work under their (utility) belts, but as the plot unfolds and these two highly-driven men learn to work together to reach the literal finish line, their natural interactions play all the truer.
As a viewer, I had no trouble believing that the prickly dynamic between Shelby and Miles was the secret to their success. That’s not something that can be simply written in a script and assumed to work on screen, rather it has to be nurtured and protected at every moment of the filmmaking process by the actors and director together.
And to the film’s great success, it plays out beautifully over the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. But what, I can hear you asking, makes this a dad movie? By my estimation, three things.
First, it’s a story about motor sports, which is essentially a double-down on things most dads appreciate. At the crux of this true story is the famed Le Mans race in France, where Ford attempts to upset the multi-year reigning champions, Ferrari.
And if you know literally nothing about cars, racing, or the historic significance of the Le Mans, you will instantly fall in love with these mid-60s race cars. They’re spectacularly fast and unbelievably beautiful.
Now, not all dads like race cars. But almost every dad admires an expertly tuned and powerfully built machine that demands to be precisely driven at 200+ mph. Or, at least I do. I know myself well enough to know that while I absolutely love the idea of driving one, I would be terrified to actually try it.
I imagine I’d likely pump the breaks once the speedometer hit triple digits.
The next reason that Ford v Ferrari is a dad movie is that it stars two of my, your, all our dad’s favorite actors. Obviously, all dads are going to have different actor preferences, and two generic white guys aren’t everyone’s first choice. However, I’m willing to bet that based on their bodies of work, both Damon and Bale have earned a spot in most dads’ hearts. For Damon, it was Good Will Hunting, The Martian, and a few Bourne movies. For Bale, it was American Psycho, Vice, and a few Batman movies that won over most dads.
Furthermore, through Damon and Bale, Ford v Ferrari depicts the experience of racing from two perspectives: the practical and the romantic.
Shelby, as the man hired by Ford to lead the racing team, represents the practical side. He must navigate the delicate art of building a world-class race car in an ultra-corporate, micro-managed environment. The larger half of the film’s plot revolves around his interactions with Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), who all want to put their hands on the wheel instead of allowing Shelby to drive the team himself.
Miles, as the loose-cannon driver, represents the romantic side. He must learn to reign in his temper, ego, and opinions to succeed in a racing world he doesn’t control. Shelby believes in him, but few others from Ford do. His character is grounded through his relationships to his wife, Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe) and son, Peter Miles (Noah Jupe), who want nothing more than to see him win Le Mans.
Or more specifically, to achieve the perfect lap in the process.
In my opinion, Miles’ pursuit of the perfect lap is the emotional core of the movie. Before flying to France for the climatic race, Miles has a quiet moment with his son discussing his artistic approach to racing. As he describes it, there are dozens of tiny indicators he uses to time his turns and gear shifts, or to apply more or less breaking and accelerating as he steers his way around the race course. If he can read them all right, Miles believes he can complete the perfect lap.
Ken Miles: Look out there. Out there is the perfect lap. You see it?
Peter Miles: I think so.
Ken Miles: Most people can’t.
You’ll have to watch the film for yourself to see if Miles attains the ultimate prize… perfection.
The final reason Ford v Ferrari is a dad movie is that the story is about overcoming differences as individuals to achieve success together as a team…and that’s an essential element of many dad movies, especially sports movies.
For example, in Miracle, Any Given Sunday, or even Space Jam, it’s the individual who tries their best and fails, only to eventually realize the power of the other people around them, and how they can all contribute toward a greater level of success by working together.
In this instance, it’s the critical relationship between Shelby and Miles that must be broken down and rebuilt, much like a race car, before success can be achieved. Both men have external challenges to overcome, as well as a contentious history between them to resolve, before they can together become the worthy contender, they dream of being.
In movie narrative terms, it’s not rocket science. It’s classic standard storytelling to have your heroes struggle first before they ultimately succeed, but in Ford v Ferrari, there’s a delightful harmony found in the way our dual protagonists’ themes and character arcs interact along their journey.
While they start the movie as two men in very different places of life, they ultimately end it as brothers.
Personally, I’ve never been very interested in racing or motor sports. I get the appeal, of course; the incredible power and speed are hard to ignore. But I’ve never understood the attraction of a circular track that requires a driver to continuously turn in the same direction over and over.
One thing I really liked about Ford v Ferrari was the portrayal of the Le Mans track, with it’s longer and more varied design. I could see how racing on courses like that would grab my attention in a way that modern NASCAR tracks fail to.
I suppose it’s on me to seek out alternative racing options, but they’re also under promoted if I’m not aware of a single one.
On a dramatically different note, one thing NASCAR has recently done that I appreciate is speaking out against racism and the confederate flag within their venues. I can’t imagine the challenge of removing racism from racing, but NASCAR has joined heavy-hitters like the NFL (among many other sports organizations) in condemning racist language, acts, and policies/practices from its own industry.
As a testament to the outdated realities of the 1960s, Ford v Ferrari features zero people of color. But during a week where Bubba Wallace (NASCAR’S only full-time Black driver on the stock car racing circuit) has been in the news for his outspoken role inspiring change within the racing world and confronting the disturbingly-inevitable backlash, I feel inspired.
Racing in the ‘60s may have been done on more dynamic courses with more stunning cars, but the lack of diversity of people working under the hoods and behind the wheels has been happily left in the dust.
The story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles attempting to dethrone Ferrari and win the 24-hour Le Mans is as classic as it gets. And I believe it’s exactly the kind of movie that dads everywhere will enjoy, maybe even love.
It’s David against Goliath at 200mph, but instead of a sling this David has a stopwatch.