Spoilers for Ford v Ferrari!
“What it is about right now, is that Marty’s movie is at the Belasco and then is going to be on TV in a month. That’s what the frustration is about. Because I’m as in full agreement that movies look too machined and tailored. Not just movies. Food. Airline trips. Television shows. Everything feels market-tested,” James Mangold (director of Ford v Ferrari) recently said on an episode of LA Times’ podcast, The Reel, when asked for his take on the recent Martin Scorsese vs. the MCU war that has been waging for what seems like six months now. “I think this is a cultural-wide problem,” he continued. “I think it’s about trying to hook audiences back into what unpredictable, more audacious art feels like.”
In this refreshingly nuanced take on the whole situation, Mangold basically spelled out the entire main theme for his most recent film. Though I think Mangold was specifically trying to comment on the movie business with his film (that is the business he’s a part of, after all), the message can be applied to every industry listed above, and more.
This particular film is about the Ford Motor Company’s attempts to build a car that can rival and beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. To do so, they enlist celebrity car designer and former racer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to head the project. While he assumes he will be given carte blanche (which he later mentions is probably French for horses***) on this project, there is more interference from the corporate end than he ever expected.
Shelby’s first and only pick for the driver of this new car is Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles knows more about driving and tinkering on cars than anyone else available, and is the perfect choice for this job. But Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) are worried that Miles will not represent Ford in a manner consistent with the company, therefore affecting their bottom line.
After it becomes obvious that the race will not be won by dozens of executives putting their own touches on the car in hopes of improving it, Ford II finally gives Shelby and Miles actual carte blanche… or so they think.
Because when it comes to the actual Le Mans, after Miles has gained an insurmountable lead and is about to accomplish exactly what he was tasked with, the big wigs decide to interfere once more. They tell him he needs to slow down so that all three Ford cars in the race can finish in a tie, which would of course look great for the company, PR-wise.
Miles, after enduring so much corporate tinkering from these people who don’t actually understand what he’s doing for them, decides to do what he thinks is the right thing and he slows down. But because of a technicality, he isn’t awarded with a win in the race like he thought he would be.
All of this is to say that corporate interference is what ruined Shelby and Miles’ chance at history. They represent the artists or filmmakers who work tirelessly for days and weeks and hours to create something they love and are passionate about, only to have the rug pulled out from under them at the very end when they think they have it in the bag.
It’s really quite heartbreaking at the end when we see that Miles isn’t actually credited with a win. He thinks that this is the one time he will compromise just a bit to keep his bosses happy. But when he gets out of his car, he realizes that the only people he just benefitted were his bosses.
Mangold is explicitly lamenting his lack of freedom in what he does. It begs the question about how often this has happened to him through the course of his filmmaking career. His foray into the comic book genre with Logan is widely regarded as the great things that can happen when a filmmaker is allowed to realize his specific vision for a character or film. But now you can’t help but wonder what the studio may have interfered with. Even in this specific case here with Ford v Ferrari, the same questions loom.
This all isn’t to say that the singular artist is always completely right. To make this car, it took a team of people constantly working together for long hours, just like it would to make a film. Its quality and potential only dropped once the corporate workers in suits got involved.
So here’s to hoping artists don’t make the same unfortunate mistake Ken Miles did. Here’s to hoping they stand their ground to make something that is wholly unique and wholly their own.