Based on the true incidents concerning the famous rivalry between the Italian brand Ferrari and the American Ford, is largely an ego battle that transpires a great underdog story. However, from this movie, we learn the events that transpire in the shadows; the camaraderie that ensues between Carrol Shelby and Ken Miles, the father-son story, the ground reality of the people who actually worked towards winning the race and the internal politics that proved to be the biggest enemy for Ford.
There’s a point at 7,000 RPM where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. It disappears. All that’s left, a body moving through space, and time. At 7,000 RPM, that’s where you meet it. That’s where it waits for you.Ford v Ferrari
While the title of the film hints at the rivalry between the two automobile giants – Ford and Ferrari, the real story takes place between Carrol Shelby, played by Matt Damon and Ken Miles, portrayed by the brilliant Christian Bale. And before we dive ahead with the movie, let us take a moment to appreciate the brilliance of Christian Bale who never fails to disappoint with his performances. He just transforms into his characters and continues to outshine in whatever role he assumes.
In every movie review for the film that I have seen so far, they all talk about how little the role of the two automobile companies even has in the film and how dependent it is on the ground level characters of Shelby and Miles who work towards achieving Ford’s ambitious plans of winning the Le Mans race of France. And there is no denying that when we compare the time frame of the film that is largely partial towards the two characters. However, everything that actually happens in the film, is set in motion by the executives at the two companies. The only reason that Henry Ford II even resolves to compete in the race is to win his ego battle with Enzo Ferrari.
Before I elaborate on the corporate rivalry, which I personally do believe is the real plot of the film, or at least the most instrumental one, let us discuss more about Ken and Carrol – our stars of the movie.
Carrol Shelby, a former Le Mans driver himself, is now a retired car designer who is still involved in the race-car scene. He is hired by the Ford company to design the perfect car for Ford to compete at the Le Mans competition and he knows just the guy to help him not only build the car, but also drive it to win the race. That person, happens to be Ken Miles, who is notorious for being eccentric and difficult to work with. The two have very different personalities save from the one thing that makes them the right click for the job – their passion for cars and for racing. So what ensues, is a compromise between the two regarding their roles for the job; Carrol would be the agent who would handle the corporate executives and Ken would be the one who would do the physical work to improve the car. They both know what their strengths are and they both know to rely and trust on the other person to carry the rest of the work. So much so, that Carrol even bets his own company on Ken winning the Daytona race the same year in the Ford car and on Ken compromising on his timing and his win for Carrol in the final Le Mans race.
Now, coming to the most remarkable lesson that is to be learnt from the movie – sometimes the real enemy is the one within – which we learn from seeing the executives working at Ford. First, the executives at Ford somehow make decisions that changed the once legendary company into one that has forgotten to innovate now and lost its identity and purpose. For the business people out there, its USP. Second, they completely blow up the deal with Enzo Ferrari about the merger between the two companies by being stubborn and unwilling to compromise. Third, the executives are vehemently opposed to letting Ken Miles drive their car as they feel he did not comply to the “Ford image.” “Put a Ford type driver in the Ford car, Mr. Shelby. That’s the Ford way”. And “Ford means reliability. Ken Miles is not a Ford man.” It’s their stubbornness and their inflexibility that restricts their growth and their excellence. Despite having more infrastructure, more liquidity, more experience, Ford is still unable to catch up to Ferrari and its innovation. And they are themselves to blame for it. They are what is curbing their potential. Fourth, the company is so, for lack of a better word, robotised that they just blindly rely on their structure and their systems to continue their operations. No one second guesses the system or tries to evaluate and correspondingly improve it. In one of the best moments of the film, this problem that Ford faces as a company is highlighted to Henry Ford II by Carrol Shelby.
So even though the top leadership of the company – Henry Ford II – himself is keen on innovating and improvising, his very people and his very team are responsible for the disappointing reality that the company has become under his leadership. And two outsiders, who have nothing to do with the company are what turn out to be its saving grace. The film shows us, like countless ones before it, how important it is to be passionate about something – the way Shelby is about his designs, the way Ken is about his driving and his cars, the way Enzo Ferrari is about his strive towards excellence. In fact, the most remarkable difference that I picked upon in the film, is how Enzo is driven by his passion and ambitions for his company whereas Henry Ford II is driven by his need to fulfil his father’s legacy than through his own ambitions. And yes, this movie is supposed to be about the legendary story about Ford winning, but that even then, it is Enzo that we respect more out of the two. But for me, the thing that stands out the most, is that sometimes the biggest thing that prevents us from reaching our potential, is ourselves; just like Ford’s team and structure are its biggest enemies.
Now I cannot possibly sign off without acknowledging the end. How foul pay from his own team prevented Ken Miles from becoming winning the Le Mans race that year. That just because Ford wanted its iconic picture at the end of the race, they ruined his chances to win. That they ultimately betrayed the very person who got them to reach their success. And to make it worse, he never got the chance to redeem himself as he suffered an untimely death soon after the Le Mans race. The world never got the chance to witness his genius and his talent and he never got the recognition that he deserved. The high of winning the race is completely replaced by the shock of his accident and of his passing and we are left with a thoroughly bittersweet end for an otherwise pretty feel-good movie.