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On Power and Ford v Ferrari

The previews are over, the lights go all the way down, and the big screen is illuminated with those larger-than-life figures. A movie theater is supposed to be an immersive experience; however, it is also a communal experience. Most of us have had the occasional encounter with the rude moviegoer: the talking, the snickering at inappropriate moments, the cell phone interruptions. That said, the normal audience response to a film can be just as intrusive, and though it may disrupt the immersive experience, I've found there is much to be learned from the rest of the theater.

Watching Ford v Ferrari was one such experience. Like many reviewers, the audience around me was loving the movie. Demographically speaking, the audience was about what you might expect: white, boomers, mostly male. But the woman two rows ahead - lets call her Peggy - is the one who caught my attention. She was there with a man, presumably her husband, but she was the one sharing audible reactions to key moments of the film. And she was the one I'm still thinking about as I wrestle with this movie, its potential Oscar win, and what it has to say about us and to us.

First, what works. Christian Bale and Matt Damon are very good. There is a moment when Bale's character, driver Ken Miles, comes off the track in a prototype and tells Damon's Carroll Shelby that the engine feels "like a bag of squirrels." Both the line and the delivery are hilarious and are indicative of the excellent performance Bale gives. The plot is tightly constructed, and I can attest to the claim that you don't have to care anything about cars to enjoy this movie.

Once you start to look under the hood (requisite car pun!), the movie raises more questions than it answers. Peggy wasn't asking those questions, however. Peggy was a fan. She was a supporter at a political rally, nodding her head, and even proclaiming "YES!" at key moments. She - and I suspect the rest of a certain viewing population - felt seen and heard by this movie. She might agree with this reviewer that Ford v Ferrari is a celebration of what makes America great.

Many summaries have already noted the key conflict here is not between the Ford and Ferrari motor companies as the title would suggest. They have rightly located the dramatic tension in the creative conflict between the Ford executives and the guys working in and on and around the cars themselves. A classic story of good guys vs bad guys, and the good guys don't always win. Though that is a better account of the movie, it is not, in my opinion, the most important takeaway. If you really want to know what this movie is about, forget the names on the good and bad sides and focus on that little 'v' in the middle.

This movie is about power. It is about what happens when a culture decides speed, dominance, and winning are the most important things. And it is about the collateral damage resulting from such decisions. Peggy was long ago sold on the notion that faster, stronger, and mightier is better. You might be seduced by the fast cars of this film and think the movie is making the same argument. And maybe that is exactly what the filmmaker(s) intended. But the beautiful - and terrifying - thing about art is that once you release your creation into the world, your intentions are no longer the most important thing. And while Peggy might cheer when the Ford car crosses the finish line first, there are others who see the movie as a condemnation of all the things Ford stood for.

There are two pieces of evidence to support this second claim, and they both come near the end of the movie. The first has two parts: when Lee Iacocca visits the Ferrari factory, and we get a glimpse into the hand-built craftsmanship that Ferrari insisted upon; and when Carroll Shelby and Enzo Ferrari lock eyes at the race course. It is impossible not to note the respect Shelby grants for the higher standards held by Ferrari. It is impossible not to long for a return to such a commitment.

The second piece of evidence involves a spoiler, so stop reading if you don't know the story and don't want to know what happened. I'm willing to reveal it since it is a true story, known by many even before the film was released. After their success at LeMans, the Ford team continued working to create an ever faster, stronger car to keep winning, and in that effort, Ken Miles was killed in a devastating crash on the test track. After his death, Shelby's grief and regret seem to make an unexpected point: the winning isn't worth the loss. The end of the movie left me wondering.

What if this motorhead movie isn't for motorheads at all? What if this movie is meant to show us that might isn't right and that those who cheer for the fast car might need to slow down and reflect a bit? Unfortunately, there's little evidence anyone else is seeing it this way. A feel-good, classic Hollywood movie? Yes. Even a terrible movie celebrating the indiscriminate consumption of fossil fuels? Yes. But a movie that seems to be celebrating the thing it is actually holding up to condemnation? Not much.

This weekend, if the Best Picture Oscar should go to Ford v Ferrari, there will be many who think it is the right choice, and perhaps it could be. I will see it as a further caution, a warning of where we are and where we are likely heading.

The argument could be made that the things this movie seems to be celebrating have been our undoing: white male domination, a culture of power, speed, and convenience that disregards the human and environmental impacts, a focus on winning at all costs, reckless individualism, and a fear of foreign culture. Peggy watches this parade, and because it feels safe and stable and familiar, she proclaims, "Yes!" Others watch that car explode on the track and wonder just how different our world today could have been if we hadn't let the Ford Motor Company drive.


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