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Ford v Ferrari feels like a classic Oscar movie. Can it win Best Picture?

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for the historical tale of men, fast cars, and mortality.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari.
20th Century Fox

Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the OscarsBest Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard-bearer for the current moment.

And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.

Each year’s nomination slate roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.

The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff, Vox video creative director Joe Posner, and film critic Alissa Wilkinson talk about Ford v Ferrari, the real-life story of two men racing against both their biggest competitor and their own demons.

Alissa: It took me a while to get around to seeing Ford v Ferrari, not because I didn’t have faith in it — after Logan, I’m genuinely interested in everything director James Mangold comes up with — but because it was sold to me as a “dad movie,” and I didn’t put it at the top of my priority list. (Look, I love dads, but there are a lot of movies.)

But when I finally got to watch it, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a really well-crafted movie with some excellent performances (one in particular we’ll get to in a bit) and a lot going on under the, uh, hood. I hate the “they don’t make movies like this anymore” cliché, because of course they do, but there’s something very old-fashioned about Ford v Ferrari that I loved.

One of you is a dad and one of you is not, though that’s not why I wanted to talk about the movie with you. It’s because I know you’re both attentive to matters of craft and how they advance storytelling beyond mere plot — and this movie, as you both know, is very dependent on things like sound design and images to give the audience an almost visceral experience. So before we get to the story of Ford v Ferrari, can we talk about how the story is told? What stood out to you?

Joe: I’ll get this out of the way: Yes, I am the dad in here. And I did enjoy this movie. (Only about half as much as the Academy-spurned Hustlers and Uncut Gems, though.) But Mangold and company made this fun — from little things like constantly referring to Henry Ford II (played by Tracy Letts) as “the Deuce” to bigger things like putting the Deuce through some truly jaw-dropping driving, and then letting us just watch him cry for what felt like a full minute afterward.

In terms of technical craft, honestly, the first thing that stuck out to me was just how loud this movie was. A baby sleeping downstairs means I’m going out to the theater less, but even at home the loud “VROOMs” triggered my deep fear of waking the baby. Yet I couldn’t turn down the volume — the characters’ voices have been carefully calibrated to be so quiet that the car noises were guaranteed tear through your body like a little puddle. Kind of a rude move for an actual new parent, but clearly a fun approach. And hey, the sound mixers and editors might even win Oscars. It’s nominated for both, perhaps making up for its lack of onscreen diversity with “VROOM” diversity?

But what was up with the voiceover? This film wants me to believe that if I’m driving a car at more than 7,000 RPMs, everything else will disappear, and I’ll just be a “body, moving in space.” Does either of you understand why a genuinely fun movie like this one would have this kind of cheesy-ass VO? It was like somebody was trying to write a Bruce Springsteen song for the movie but only went like 33 percent of the way there.

Emily: My partner and I have a semi-regular movie night with some friends, and the one man in our little quartet kept insisting that we needed to watch this movie for one of those get-togethers. He’d seen it in theaters and thought we would enjoy it. So, dutifully, we loaded it up — and we had a fuckin’ blast. (Yes, there’s no G at the end of that word!)

Maybe the chief reason to watch this movie is the race sequences, which blaze by with a muted intensity that feels strangely classicist at this point in cinematic history. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine, say, Tony Scott or Ron Howard having made this in the mid-’90s and winning a bunch of Oscars for it, because the film’s high-speed races would have felt so groundbreaking at the time. Now, it’s weirdly quaint, a great reminder of what a dad movie has become in an era when a lot of dads are Gen Xers.

But the other selling point of Ford v Ferrari, as far as I’m concerned, is Christian Bale. He’s just magnificent as Ken Miles, a man who approaches the planet as a thing he could get to spin at more revolutions per minute in order to transcend himself and ... something something something something. (You’re right, Joe, that this movie sort of assumes that what you most want to do in life is drive a car really fast. Maybe that’s true.) He anchors the movie in such a way that when this film takes a full turn toward “he was taken too soon” in its last 15 minutes, Ken’s (historical) death in a crash kind of robs the movie of its momentum in a way it never really earns. But still!

Also, yes, Tracy Letts, our most wonderful movie dad. How he didn’t get more notice for a movie in which he plays out that long series of emotions after he’s dragged into a car that goes extremely fast is beyond me, and in a movie full of schematic villains (like the Italians in this movie are basically out of a Mario game), he offers a nuanced look at a man with a lot of power who just wants to play with his toys.

What’s fascinating about Ford is how it’s composed of maybe 15 different two-handers nested within it. (A two-hander is a movie about two characters who have a typically non-romantic relationship that drives both of them forward, usually with those two characters cast with well-known actors.) Yes, of course, this is a movie about the relationship between Bale’s and Matt Damon’s characters, but both men’s relationships with Henry Ford II could be at the center of this film, too. So could the actual rivalry between Ford and Ferrari, if you wanted.

It’s that willingness to feint toward the complexities of all of these characters that makes Ford v Ferrari such a blast to watch. Is it the best movie of the year? No. But it’s absolutely the one movie among the nominees that’s most likely to become a cable TV staple in the years to come. And that is its own kind of win.

Alissa: So from what I hear, the stunts (a.k.a. all that driving) are mostly real in this movie, rather than CGI’d (though there are plenty of special effects, too). Which brings up a question for me: Why don’t we have an Oscar for stunts? And do you think this one would win it this year, if we did?

Emily: This would be a totally wonderful winner of a theoretical Oscar for best stunts. And what do you know? Ford v Ferrari received a SAG nomination for its stunt ensemble, the closest thing we have to an Oscar for them. So I think you’re onto something here, Alissa.

That the movie uses mostly real stunt drivers is terrific, because it ties into what Ford v Ferrari is about at its core, which is this idea of old-fashioned craftsmanship. That’s obviously something that appeals to Mangold, a director who never met a concept he couldn’t shoehorn into a Western, but it’s also often a core idea of the dad movie. The theory goes that, at one time, men were men and craftsmanship was king. Now, everything’s falling apart. People don’t even do their own stunts anymore! It’s all created by a computer! What happened to America?

The key to the dad movie often is that it’s not really a movie about the dad watching it but about his dad. So, for instance, the idea is that you, Joe, might watch this movie and think about your own dad, and how if he really put his mind to it, he could build a race car that would take out Ferrari at Le Mans. That’s why a truly great dad movie appeals to people of all genders, and regardless of parenthood status: We can remember our own dads or some other dependably masculine figure who impacted our lives in a memorable way (like when they convinced Henry Ford II to give Ken Miles another chance by taking him on a wild ride around an airport runway).

What Mangold complicates about the dad movie in this film is that he doesn’t really give us easy heroes and villains. Though the movie is titled Ford v Ferrari, the Ferrari company and its standard-bearers sort of cease to be a major concern about two-thirds of the way through the film. Instead, we end up with a story about Ford versus Ford, as Carroll Shelby (Damon) and his team take on the more directly Ford-sponsored teams, then get bamboozled into giving up Ken Miles’s big win.

I was vaguely gutted by this bamboozlement, too. I really was invested in Ken Miles winning, and when he slowed down to let his teammates cross the finish line before him, I felt like he’d also won the victory over himself. Instead, he’d been tricked by his corporate overlords. It’s very Mangold to make a movie about how an iconoclast is still in the service of the Man, and this might be his ultimate statement of intent in that regard.

But I also loved all the little ways this movie immersed us in the details of Le Mans, like the diagram Miles shares with his son of the course, or the footrace to get to the cars that opens the big race. And there’s something so punishing about imagining keeping a car on the road for 24 hours, endlessly staving off disaster, in a way that Carroll knows all too well.

This isn’t just a movie about guys being guys, though. It’s also about exactly one woman who gets to have multiple lines of dialogue, which is Ken’s wife, Mollie, played by Caitriona Balfe. If this film has been consistently criticized for anything, it’s the way Mollie is basically a throwback to a “supportive wife” character from one of those aforementioned ’90s movies. Joe, did you find Mollie a compelling character? And how did you feel about the movie’s weird and mournful ending?

Joe: I guess Mollie is not entirely hewing to type — she never seems too worried about Ken’s high-risk avocation — but yes, the character was pretty shallow. Caitriona Balfe’s performance is knowing enough to make the most of it; watching her pull up a lawn chair to “not watch” the boys fight feels inconceivable outside the movies, for example. But the way she looks over her sunglasses, it’s as if she knows too. Maybe Mollie is pining for the crafted, larger-than-life stereotypes of Hollywood yore and has cast herself within that frame? Or maybe the male writer just ... didn’t care.

As for the ending, it clearly wasn’t something this movie wanted to dwell on. The wide shot of the crash leaves you wondering what exactly happened. The voiceover returns, suggesting that maybe attaining high speed is worth dying for. We hear a vague echo telling us that “sometimes they just don’t get out of the car,” but the movie never directly grapples with the specifics of what happened with the same detail afforded to the painstakingly recreated race scenes.

Well, outside the movies we have Google, and some cursory research suggests the real Ken Miles did get out of the car — because he was violently thrown out of it as the car tumbled end over end, killing him. There’s no specific evidence the crash was due to driver error, leaving the possibility that Ford or Shelby could share responsibility.

But rather than allowing Mollie, Ken’s son Peter, or Shelby to ask that question, the filmmakers quietly speed by it.

I wish they hadn’t. I enjoyed the fun of the movie, and deeply enjoyed every moment of Tracy Letts’s portrayal of Henry Ford II’s insecurities. But the filmmakers looked away when it mattered. “He died doing what he loved,” the film wants us to say to ourselves, hoping, as Emily says, that we’ll think wistfully about our dads in the process. But Ken was only 47, and I shudder to think how my life would be different if my dad had passed away that young. Wouldn’t you want to know if your father died as a result of the Deuce’s pissing contest?

Alissa: My dad actually did pass away at 47 (from leukemia, though, not exactly a pissing contest), and I thought quite a lot about him, and the gap his passing left, while I was watching the movie. Other movies this season (like The Irishman), combined with the fact that I am slowly, slowly approaching the age he was then, have made me think about how I’ll never know him as an old man. And there’s a sense in which Ford v Ferrari expertly explores middle age, the way The Irishman is a searing insight into old age.

Last question: What other movies have given you the same feeling of adrenaline and emotion that watching Ford v Ferrari does? Another way of asking this — if someone loved Ford v Ferrari, what else would you suggest to them? Neither of these is an obvious choice, but I’d recommend Mangold’s last film, Logan, which takes the X-Men’s Wolverine character and makes him the star of a Western, and last year’s great documentary Apollo 11, which in some ways is about people trying to pull off a feat just as zany as the one in this movie.

Joe: Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry for your loss, Alissa.

To answer your question, I was surprised to be reminded of Pixar’s Ratatouille while watching Ford v Ferrari. No, not Cars, which correctly didn’t make it anywhere close to the top of Vox’s Pixar rankings. Stick with me here: I understand the technical specifics of how to make a car go faster about as clearly as how a rat could control a human via his hair. But the films share a rambunctious search for perfection, the inevitability of compromise, and some complicated parenting.

And this is even further afield, but if you’re looking for another film featuring some absolutely fantastic performances, a deeply impressive commitment to a craft, some admittedly shallow characters, and a happy ending instead of a historically mandated sad one: Singin’ in the Rain. I lived 35 years without seeing that movie. Dearest reader, avoid my mistake if you can.

But I’m so excited to hear Emily’s suggestions — take it away!

Emily: I lost my biological father (whom I never met) when he was 48, and even though I had never spoken to him, the loss was gutting all the same. I didn’t expect him to suddenly be my “dad,” but it was nice to know he was out there in the world, being somebody’s dad, probably. (Turned out this suspicion was right. His two kids have become a wonderful part of my life since I met them.)

So good dad movies often have a touch of the melancholy to them. And because our old pal James Mangold and the father who actually raised me both love Westerns, allow me to recommend a few of those. Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s paean for a long-gone genre and a long-gone way of life, is a must-watch for sure. But also how about The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, a movie that is a lot of fun yet soaked through with pathos? Or even The Searchers, which 2020 eyes will note has plenty of racist stereotypes but is at least using them in service of poking at old Hollywood’s racist assumptions, and is definitely melancholic.

Or maybe we just want a “cars go fast” movie, in which case, Ron Howard’s 2013 movie Rush is a good time. (Heck, Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 has big Ford v Ferrari energy as well.) Yet that’s the thing about dad movies: They end up being ultra-personal choices, because they’ll always remind you, on some level, of all the fatherly folks in your own life, both known and unknown. Ford v Ferrari made me feel those ghosts acutely, but it also let me see some cars go really fast. What more do you really want from a movie?

Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:

1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite