The 2019 screening of Ford v Ferrari at Toronto’s International Film Festival was a thrilling ride. I waited with hundreds of other lucky ticket-holders inside Roy Thompson Hall, ready for the sounds of roaring engines whipping around corners and whooshing across the oversized screen.
The film did not disappoint. To my husband’s embarrassment, I shamelessly rocked from side to side to the deafening noises and vibrations that put me inside the sweeping tale of two legendary car companies. Every time he nudged my arm, I was gripping the armrest or grabbing his knee with nervous energy. Yet, when I looked around the theater, the audience seemed equally invested in the action. It was okay not to be a fan of fast cars and powerful dual overhead camshafts. Not only was the sensory experience and exceptional camera work on steroids, the narrative plot was just as entertaining.
What matters in the film is whether or not the team of British and American car designers and engineers working for the Ford Motor Company will win the prestigious 1966 Le Mans racing event in France and beat team Ferrari. But on a deeper level, we also wonder how the tempestuous friendship between British mechanic and driver Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale) will play out with American former racecar driver and designer Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon). At the center of this epic race, besides the acting phenoms of Bale and Damon, is the true story of how Ford’s new GT40 car challenged the Ferrari racing team in 1966.
For those unfamiliar with the Le Mans race – aka the Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France, it’s a 24 hour endurance event that dates back to 1923. It’s considered the world’s greatest sports racing event and “a brutal test of endurance where competitors race stunningly fast cars for 24 straight hours at speeds that can exceed 200 mph on the fastest section of the incredibly long 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe road course.”
However, what makes this film truly entertaining and worth watching is director James Mangold and screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller’s real drama: the car-battling dynasties and the human drama in the race to the finish line. Family reputations and country-strong titles are at stake, but underneath we see cautionary truths about our human nature presented in a disarming way.
The unlikely friendship of Miles and Shelby engineering a car of superior speed and design, is juxtaposed against the fierce competition of dueling car companies, Ford and Ferrari. In the race to win, sacrifices are made. Enzo Ferrari must decide whether or not to cheat by bending the rules. Ford company executives wage the price of revenge against Miles’ rightful place in speed history. In many ways, the dramatic tension mirrors the precarious balancing act of the Le Mans race itself. The winner of the Le Mans faces what we as humans do: juggling the precarious balance of two competing interests – speed and endurance. Going faster gets you further ahead but you can’t win if you don’t finish the race.
Like all good movies, these dilemmas speak to our emotional quandaries in life. What is the cost of competition. What do we trade in the race to be first, to be famous, and to build progress? The original script title of this great rivalry between Ford and Ferrari was called “Go Like Hell.” Wise choice to change the name, but the underlying assumption equates speed with progress. This is often the case in today’s world and I wonder if perhaps it’s time to challenge this idea? More than ever, we live in an age where speed comes at a price. We’re seeing it now.
On the racetrack, speed without control can spell disaster as much as a poorly designed engine. In the course of our human history, similar balancing acts exist in our rush to harness progress and the benefits of a globalized world. The world is at our doorstep, goods are cheaper, and we move easier and faster than we ever did. But the pressure to be first among nations, in industry and in competition, has come at a cost. Some are more obvious like health and security issues. Others can hide, like COVID, human trafficking and food insecurities.
In our post-industrial world, new technologies are drivers of speed and success. They are ever-evolving at increasing speeds, despite the increased need for environmental sustainability and greater human considerations around economic, social and political inequalities. For example, how does speed change employment or safety? I’m not advocating for an end to globalization any more than I’m suggesting progress or speed is bad. I like fast cars, movies and competition.
But I do know that dramas like Ford v Ferrari remind us of the bigger race – the human race. Winning and speeding come at a cost. Life is a balance. Human values matter as do changes in the way we drive our economies, resources, robotics, and markets. The distance that lies ahead is exciting, but how we get there matters.