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Ford v. Ferrari v. the Owner Class

Matt Damon and Christian Bale play racecar drivers determined to beat their Italian competitors in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the real villains are the suits who are standing in our heroes’ way.

Whenever I’m watching the Super Bowl, World Series or NBA Finals, whether I like the teams or not, I always know what will be the worst moment of the entire broadcast. That’s when the winning team’s owner accepts the trophy and gives a speech. It seems wrong that, of all the people to get to talk during that incredible moment, we have to hear from somebody who didn’t do much of anything. Sure, he or she — usually it’s a he — had to spend a lot of money, but in terms of the actual decisions of putting together a team and executing a strategy, they weren’t really responsible. They didn’t throw a single pass, hit a critical three-pointer or face the opponent’s best reliever in a high-pressure situation. The owner is up there on that podium because he’s rich. Yes, maybe he loves the team, but in terms of making that championship happen, he did only slightly more than you or I did.

Ford v Ferrari is a sports movie of sorts, but it ultimately has less to do with winners or losers — you can find out how the actual events played out without seeing the film — than it does about articulating the bittersweet universal condition of being someone who watches sports or plays them. The typical sports drama involves a plucky underdog (or perhaps a whole team of plucky underdogs) taking on the big, bad foe. But in director James Mangold’s film about 1966’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the bad guys aren’t the people that our heroes face on the racetrack — it’s the pompous men in the suits watching from the fancy seats. Who cares if you’re victorious? You’re still at the mercy of the guy holding the purse strings.

Set over the span of a few years during the mid-1960s, Ford v Ferrari is the story of two men: Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former champion driver who now designs cars, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a brilliant but temperamental racecar driver. They’ve been tasked by the Ford Motor Company to build an elite car that can defeat Italy’s Ferrari at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. The odds are definitely not in Carroll and Ken’s favor — Ferrari has a track record of excellence at Le Mans, and Ford is no longer considered to be a manufacturer of world-class automobiles — but these two guys are just crazy and cocky enough to think that they can do it.

From that description, you can envision the contours of Ford v Ferrari’s narrative pretty easily. Sports movies usually involve balls or pucks, but early on, Mangold establishes a familiar template of likeable, underestimated scamps taking on the system. Carroll and Ken are the movie’s Rocky, or the U.S. hockey team in Miracle, or Brad Pitt’s undermanned Oakland A’s in Moneyball. We know where Ford v Ferrari is going.

Except we don’t — not quite. For one thing, Mangold doesn’t spend much time demonizing Ford’s competition: The Italians from Ferrari are snooty but hardly reprehensible. If anything, Ford v Ferrari’s fiends are the folks at Ford. Ostensibly, they’re the ones bankrolling this risky operation and backing Carroll and Ken. But as we’ll learn, they have their own agenda. As embodied by the haughty Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), eternally self-conscious about not living up to his grandfather’s legacy as a visionary businessman, Ford becomes a representation of The Suits: the guys who make lots of money, have the impressive titles and the sharp clothes, but don’t actually do a damn thing. What’s worse, in Ford v Ferrari they spend their time undermining Carroll and Ken, thinking they know racecars better than these two guys do. (Spoiler: They do not.)

The movie illustrates through its two leads the competing ways to handle people like the Ford execs. Photogenic and effortlessly charming, Damon’s Carroll does his best to be pragmatic, trying to meet them halfway. To his mind, a small degree of nonsense is worth it in order to achieve the larger goal: being part of the first U.S. car company to win at Le Mans. But Bale’s combative Ken won’t compromise: To him, everything is a war, and you either win or lose. He won’t bend on anything, and he loses respect for Carroll because he’s more accommodating to the Ford brass, which includes Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). As far as Ken is concerned, they’re all the enemy.

Ford v Ferrari is hardly the first sports movie to pit players against owners. Slap Shot and Major League got some mileage out of the slobs-versus-snobs dynamic. But Mangold’s film is far less celebratory than those others — there’s a grim resignation to the way that Carroll and Ken understand that they’re stuck. Racing is a sport these men love down to the marrow of their bones — if Carroll didn’t have a heart condition, he’d still be behind the wheel — and so Le Mans is hallowed ground. But for Henry Ford II, this renowned international event is just a shiny trinket — it’s a thing that can bestow prestige upon the winner. Ford thinks he can win Le Mans by throwing a lot of money at it. Carroll and Ken know that you can’t because winning that race is priceless.

It’s hard to be a sports fan these days. Pay even the slightest bit of attention to the news and you’ll be aware of how terrible most team owners are. When they’re not trying to fleece their fans by making them pay for garish new stadiums, they’re conspiring to keep politically conscious players out of their leagues. (Other times, they’re just being incredibly racist.) And yet, when you watch sports, none of this is ever mentioned during the broadcast. No matter how insidious a guy like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is, you can guarantee he’ll be portrayed as a lovable rascal, as he was during last Sunday night’s Cowboys-Vikings game on NBC. Jerry’s stadium has the best artwork, we’re told. Oh, that Jerry, he’s such a character. It’s almost like we’re supposed to be grateful to him for bringing football into our lives.

That same entitled attitude pervades Henry Ford II and Beebe, who loves breaking Carroll’s balls and exerting his authority. Because these men secretly despise Carroll and Ken — envious that they’re actually good at something other than making money — they always hold their exalted position over the racecar drivers. Guys like Beebe have crippling insecurity, and so they work to make our heroes feel small. One of Ford v Ferrari’s central tensions is that Ford Motor Company doesn’t want Ken driving Le Mans, preferring someone who better represents “Ford values.” (Basically, the execs hate Ken because he refuses to kiss their feet.) The Ford brain trust wants Carroll to win, but only on Ford’s terms. Because they write the checks, they want the glory for themselves.

The irony is that Carroll and Ken don’t exactly get along. The two men have a complicated history from before Ford v Ferrari begins — they had an altercation thanks to Ken being such a hothead — but Carroll knows that Ken is the only guy gutsy enough to win Le Mans. And as they’re hassled more and more by the Ford execs, they’ll bond against them. These two men’s personalities clash, but they’re linked by a genuine passion for something. Even more than winning Le Mans, it’s that passion that Ford v Ferrari celebrates.

Still, Mangold recognizes the limitations of passion. I won’t reveal exactly how the film concludes, but the race’s actual outcome isn’t quite as important as how it’s presented to the public. Carroll and Ken care deeply about the history of Le Mans, but a guy like Henry Ford II is only concerned about stature. It can be hard to have something you really love — sports have a nasty habit of breaking your heart. Rich guys will never understand that kind of disappointment — when you can buy everything, then nothing really has much value. During the championship of sporting events, I tend to turn off the TV before the owners speak. I’m not interested in anything they have to say. What’s poignant about Ford v Ferrari is that it doesn’t allow you that option. Sometimes, the bad guys win, even if they’re on the same team as the good guys.

Here are three other takeaways from Ford v Ferrari….

#1. I feel bad for Josh Lucas.

Some actors become what I call anonymous celebrities — you recognize them from a bunch of things, but they leave little impression. They’re professionally famous because they’re sufficiently handsome, but nothing more. And one of them is Josh Lucas. In fact, you may be reading this paragraph and thinking, “I remember that name, but not what he looks like.”

This is what Josh Lucas looks like:

Right, he’s that guy — he’s Josh Lucas.

Personally, one of the reasons why I think about him a lot is that I can’t escape his voice. He does the narration in Home Depot commercials, which play nonstop on Spotify and during football games.

And whenever I hear those commercials, I feel bad for him, which is silly. Josh Lucas is probably making a good living. He’s doing fine. But his film career has always seemed a little underwhelming. He’s done a ton of work, including being Reese Witherspoon’s ex in Sweet Home Alabama, but he’s almost always the other guy — the supporting player. And he’s that way in Ford v Ferrari, where he portrays Leo Beebe, who spends the entire movie being a jerk to Matt Damon. The guy is a world-class weasel — Lucas plays him as the much punchable human being imaginable. He’s not even a fun jerk — he’s just a jerk. This doesn’t seem like the role you’d want to play. It’s just so depressingly one-note. But there Lucas goes, luxuriating in being a dick.

Lucas hasn’t had many opportunities to break out of a certain type of blandly-hunky role. But he has the capacity to be far more interesting. As proof, seek out The Mend, in which he plays a fascinating lowlife, Mat, who has a contentious relationship with his brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett), who’s not as abrasive as his sibling but just as troubled. The Mend is about them thrashing around in their discontent, and Lucas is stunning in it — he’s a world-class nightmare.

The movie was made on a micro-budget and recouped very little money. It’s not even in a genre that Lucas likes all that much. “It’s an odd film for me,” he admitted. “I’m not a fan of mumblecore, as I think it’s indulgent. I find Williamsburg hipsters off-putting.” But Lucas gravitated to The Mend’s darkness. “There’s a terror and excitement of him being around his brother. It could be a fistfight. You don’t know. That’s not mumblecore; it’s Cassavetes and Mean Streets.” 

And it’s certainly a far cry from being the pitchman for Home Depot.

#2. How do drivers deal with having to pee during a race?

Since I know nothing about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I initially thought, “Wow, what an arduous race, having to drive 24 hours straight.” Ford v Ferrari helped me realize that, actually, the drivers take shifts — Ken Miles didn’t drive the full race — but the movie did bring up another question. In a sport where seconds are critical, what do you do if you have to pee during the race?

Not surprisingly, I’m not the first person to wonder this: Back in May, Tyler Kraft of the Indianapolis Star asked Indianapolis 500 racers how they deal with the call of nature. The trick seems to be timing it just right so that you have to pee before the race. (The Indy 500 lasts more than three hours.) What’s especially interesting is how drivers decide when (or when not to) hold it while they’re driving. If you’re about to get into a wreck, it’s actually better not to fight your biological need. “I just pee myself [if I’m about to crash],” racer Will Power told Kraft. “No one wants to hit a wall with a full bladder. You burst that bladder you’re in big trouble.” (By the way, I love that there’s a racecar driver named Will Power.)

But even in non-crash situations, some drivers will just decide to whiz, which can be challenging because of how fast they’re zipping around the track. “You wait until you’re on the straightaway and then you do it,” driver Graham Rahal said. “It’s pretty hard to do, actually. I think everybody thinks it just sort of happens, but it takes actual concentration to make it happen, so I try not to do it that much.”

Then again, peeing in your racecar isn’t that bad — there are worse fates. Take Tony Stewart, who in 2004 won the Watkins Glen International while dealing with a nasty stomach bug. “It started about the 15th or 17th lap,” Stewart said after his victory. “It got better toward the end, but I still don’t feel well.” The AP story noted that “Stewart went back to his hauler as soon as he exited the car after winning. … He was driven back to his motor coach in a golf cart to change his uniform and attempt to recover.” Naturally, that only prompted NASCAR fans to speculate on why, exactly, he had to “change his uniform.” 

Either way, the dry cleaning bill on that uniform probably wasn’t cheap.

#3. I’m embarrassed I’d never heard of James Burton before.

Ford v Ferrari has a fairly rockin’ soundtrack, but there was one song I didn’t recognize, so I turned on Shazam while it played during the end credits. That’s how I was introduced to James Burton’s rendition of “Polk Salad Annie.”

Put away for a moment that the song, written by Tony Joe White, actually didn’t come out until after the events depicted in Ford v Ferrari. Nevertheless, Burton, who turned 80 this year, included his rendition on the 1971 album The Guitar Sounds of James Burton, which features a bunch of covers, including “Susie Q,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Mystery Train.”

Before looking up “Polk Salad Annie,” I wasn’t familiar with Burton, who’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contributions as a guitarist, backing everyone from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello. On the Hall of Fame’s website, it’s noted that “his signature sound combines flatpicking and fingerpicking on a Fender Telecaster, resulting in a fluid, sustained melodicism evocative of pedal steel guitar and taut, staccato bursts of notes known as ‘chicken pickin’.’ Burton is also adept on pedal steel and dobro, and he brings the distinctive qualities of those instruments to his guitar work.”

He runs the full gamut of sounds and styles on Guitar Sounds, moving from blues to rockabilly. But the highlight for me remains “Polk Salad Annie,” which captures the film’s burn-rubber euphoria as Ken attacks the racetrack in his souped-up Ford GT40. To borrow the title of another track on this album, “Polk Salad Annie” has plenty of rock and raunch.