Playing Chicken | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Playing Chicken 

Ford v Ferrari and the balance between highbrow cinema and pure entertainment.

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click to enlarge 20TH CENTURY FOX
  • 20th Century Fox

If you haven't been immersed lately in the thing called "Film Twitter," you might be blissfully unaware of a now-weeks-long dustup involving director Martin Scorsese and his feelings about super-hero movies. To reduce it to its crudest essentials, it involves Scorsese's distinction between what he considers "cinema" and what he considers "worldwide audiovisual entertainment"—risk-taking storytelling, as opposed to safe, financially lucrative franchise installments. It's an important conversation—one that, predictably, has generated plenty of hand-wringing and gross generalizations—but it's also a somewhat limited one. Because when pondering that dichotomy, what are we to do with a movie like Ford v Ferrari?

There's a common descriptor of "middlebrow" for big-screen stories that involve basically grown-up narratives, a general aura of respectability and (probably) no explosions. That's too dismissive, and not entirely accurate, for something like Ford v Ferrari, yet it's worth considering where it fits if you're evaluating any given individual's artistic consumption in metaphorically dietary terms. This isn't popcorn or cotton candy, nor is it a palate-challenging gourmet meal. Maybe it's fried chicken, and we're wrestling with whether we're appreciating it because it's actually a great piece of fried chicken, or whether we're just hungry for something that isn't popcorn or cotton candy.

There is a great real-life story at its core, opening here with successful race-car driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, but forced to retire soon thereafter due to a heart condition. Four years later, Shelby is a successful car designer when he's approached by Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) with a proposition: In an attempt to jazz up the car company's image, Ford wants to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, challenging the successful Ferrari team. And for Shelby, that means bringing on board his volatile frequent collaborator, British expat driver/designer Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

The relationship between Shelby and Miles is the heart of the story, albeit one like Shelby's heart that doesn't work exactly the way it should. Bale's performance is the richer of the two, largely because Miles gets more character layers, particularly in his interactions with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (A Quiet Place's Noah Jupe). Damon, meanwhile, gets some individually fun scenes to play, but Ford v Ferrari generally doesn't contend with the circumstances that forced him from behind the wheel to the behind the scenes, which feels like a lapse when the film's bigger thematic concerns unfold.

And as those ideas unfold, it becomes clear that Ford v Ferrari is primarily about the notion of masculinity in its era. The story addresses Miles' financial problems that result in the IRS seizing his assets, leaving him feeling like a poor provider for his family; the primary inciting incident for Ford's competition with Ferrari involves Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) feeling personally insulted by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and responding by opening up his checkbook. The macho world of auto racing is an ideal setting for a tale built on a lot of dick-swinging and jockeying for the upper hand, whether on the track or off it. Competition becomes a test of virility, of whose engine has the most thrust.

Director James Mangold does a perfectly satisfactory job of keeping those elements in the picture, but he's also out to deliver something that's got a lot of showy kineticism. The racing scenes are gripping, which is pretty crucial considering how much of the climax is devoted to this one epic race, as the editing slides the perspective from street-level speed to the tactical decisions behind how far to push the car's capabilities, and when. It's also a movie that presents a very basic "big finish" structure, one where—at a point where Miles is more than a lap behind the Le Mans leader—we get not one but two instances of a character saying out loud, to remind the audience, that Miles has to pass the lead car twice. There's nothing wrong with such a concern about keeping the audience on-board and engaged; it's also stuff that succeeds at least as much on a level of visceral energy as thoughtful storytelling. This is, after all, a narrative that celebrates a massive American conglomerate flexing its muscle to get a win. As entertaining as it is, maybe it's worth considering that it's showing us the pleasures of a well-fried piece of chicken.

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