Ford V Ferrari
This movie, a story about how the Ford Shelby Mustang wrested domination of the fabled Le Mans road race from Ferrari’s race cars will appeal to motor heads and patriots. But its appeal is more complex than that.
It begins by taking us inside Ford’s corporate headquarters in the early 60’s where Lee Iacocca is confronting Henry Ford II with a reality. Ford sales are in a slump because its cars have lost their sizzle. The new generation doesn’t want its daddy’s car. It wants excitement. It wants speed.
He persuades his boss that Ferrari, who for years has dominated the Le Mans grueling twenty-four hour road race with his hand crafted 330’s, is in financial trouble. Ferrari might be ripe for a merger with Ford that would add sales appeal to the Ford name. Ford dispatches a team to Italy to pitch Ferrari. At first, the Italian seems interested, but he ultimately, in contemptuous terms, rejects the Ford bid in favor of one from Fiat. He sneers at Henry Ford as an unworthy successor to his father, “He is not Henry Ford. He is Henry Ford II.”
When the CEO learns of the slur, rage at the injury to his Oedipal grandiosity erupts, and he declares war. Ford will do whatever it takes to produce a car that will out-perform the fabled Ferraris.
He is persuaded to assign the project to Carroll Shelby, a racing driver who once won at Le Mans and who has turned to car design. Shelby, in turn, recruits his buddy, Ken Miles, a crusty Brit racer and mechanic, as a partner to help with the design and to do the actual driving, which Shelby’s heart problems preclude.
This sets up three important features of the film. It is a contest between true blue Americans and snooty foreigners. It is a buddy film centered on the relationship between Shelby and Miles. It is a film about egos and self-esteem. Henry Ford II struggles against being over-shadowed by his father, and ornery, individualistic Miles and Shelby struggle like twin Lacoons against being strangled by the corporate-think that characterizes Ford Inc.
There are two other psychological elements that grabbed my attention. One is the movie’s attempt to capture a subtle frame of mind, a kind of dissociation induced by the pressures of incredible speed and its hazards: “There is a point at 7,000 RPMs 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.”
And then there is the film’s status as a buddy film. To me the tie between Miles and Shelby was its emotional center. They love each other. C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, speaks of companionate love, the love of those united by a shared purpose. The self-psychologist Heinze Kohut describes mirroring self-objects, elements that stabilize our identities by a kind of deep congruence. United in their passion for automotive perfection, Miles’ and Shelby’s love for each other is deeply moving.