‘Ford v Ferrari’ is the climate change horror film nobody needed
This post contains spoilers for Ford v Ferrari, a bad movie that you should not see.
In the opening moments of Ford v Ferrari, racecar driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is somewhere around the halfway mark of the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, the grueling French endurance race in which drivers speed around an 8.5-mile circuit as many times as possible for 24 hours straight. It’s the middle of the night, and fatigue is obviously starting to catch up with Shelby. He slows down for a pit stop and warns his crew that the engine is running hot. Right on cue, flames leap out of his car and onto his suit. After a tense scuffle, the pit crew puts out the fire and looks nervously at Shelby.
“Am I on fire?” he shouts. He is not. Then fill her up, he demands. The race must go on.
The scene is, in itself, a neat metaphor for our society’s addiction to fossil fuels: Even in the face of disaster, Shelby is too addicted to speed and glory to fathom not refueling his vehicle. He has a compulsion to continue doing literally the exact same thing over and over and over again, even if it threatens to kill him and those around him. The ensuing two and a half hours of Ford v Ferrari are slick with the same uncanny symbolism: Though director James Mangold never once even winks at the negative environmental effects of combusting all that gasoline, he has unwittingly managed to create a striking cinematic allegory for the climate crisis.
The critically acclaimed Ford v Ferrari, currently the No. 1 movie in the country, is a celebration of all the American values that got us into the climate emergency and a repudiation of the values we’ll need to get out of it. The plot concerns Ford Motor Company’s entrée into designing race cars in the 1960s, a gambit that a craggy executive played by Jon Bernthal — best known for playing the title role in Netflix’s The Punisher series — explains will help the ailing auto manufacturer sell more cars to teenagers. After a botched attempt to buy the niche Italian company Ferrari, Ford hires Shelby and a hotheaded British driver named Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to build a car that will beat Ferrari at Le Mans. The rivalry is personal: Henry Ford II (an entertainingly blustery Tracy Letts) decides to greenlight the racing project after hearing that Ferrari’s president called him fat, a “son of a whore,” and a pale imitation of his famous grandfather*.
All the greatest hits of American exceptionalism are baked into the script. Individualism? The central tension of the movie is between Shelby’s desire to do things on his own and the auto company’s habit of succeeding via collaboration. (“You can’t win a race by committee,” Shelby tells Ford at one point, articulating the film’s thesis statement.) Norm-breaking? Shelby and Miles’ masterstroke for winning Le Mans is to swap out their car’s brakes midway through the race, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Le Mans rulebook. Xenophobia? Ferrari’s execs are painted as backstabbers who deserve a comeuppance, and frequently their Italian dialogue doesn’t even get subtitles, so uninterested is the movie in their perspective.
White masculinity? There is not a single character of color in the film, and only one female character with a name: Ken’s wife Mollie, played by the appealing Irish actress Caitriona Balfe. In lieu of interiority, Mollie is given a lust for speed to match her husband’s, at one point zooming the family car around a winding suburban road, careening past other cars, while Ken yells at her to slow down. (Ford v Ferrari’s idea of feminism: Women 👏 can 👏 pollute 👏 and 👏 endanger 👏 people’s 👏 lives 👏 too 👏.)
Of course, we’ve seen all these tropes before — in most sports movies and in nearly every biopic about a Great Man Who Sees Things Differently. Usually it’s possible to squint at a cinematic celebration of individual male greatness and find some virtue or at least some fun in it, if you don’t think about it too hard. But in the self-serious Ford v Ferrari, the dark side of these tropes is tough to ignore — this is a movie that’s literally about burning fossil fuels as recklessly and noisily as possible. America’s dependency on individual convenience, tolerance for rule-breaking, indifference to people of color and everyone else inhabiting our planet, and deference to white male corporate executives are some of the main reasons we’re the biggest carbon polluter in history. But hey, those traits also won us some car races!
Near the end, it looks like Ford v Ferrari is about to make a sop to the value of teamwork. Shelby and Miles’ car is laps ahead of the competition in the 1966 Le Mans, easily on the path to winning the race. Then a sniveling Ford vice president played by Josh Lucas has a suggestion: What if Miles slows down to allow two other Ford cars to catch up to him, and then they all cross the finish line together as a testament to Ford’s greatness? Miles uncharacteristically decides to go along, selflessly stopping to wait for the other Ford drivers before they hit the 24-hour mark. But it’s a trap! Despite Miles’ obvious superiority, one of the other Ford drivers wins Le Mans on a technicality. Take that lesson to heart, kids: You should never sacrifice your own personal glory for the greater good.
As wildfires rage in Australia, a record-breaking hurricane season draws to a close, and meteorologists predict that this year will go down as the second-hottest in recorded history, it’s clear that Ford v Ferrari is the wrong movie for 2019. It would have also been the wrong movie for 2009, 1999, and 1989. It might have seemed OK in 1979, when fossil fuel companies like Exxon knew about the peril of global warming but the American movie-going public did not. Ford v. Ferrari feels like a stinking relic dug up from the bowels of the earth and endlessly refined until it acquired a nice plastic sheen. It should have stayed in the ground.