“He’s pushing the car too hard! That wasn’t the plan!”

Plans change.

That’s really all you need to know about the writing in Ford v. Ferrari, the new fast and furious film about how the Ford Motor Company schemed to pull itself out of a slump by getting sexy on the racetrack.

But we’re not here for Shakespeare, right? This is an amusement park ride for kids of all ages who feel the need for speed. If that’s your thing, you’ll be fine. Director James Mangold hasn’t mangled it. And, to be honest, I probably would have loved it when I was 14 and went through a brief Car Phase, thumbtacking pictures of Pontiacs to my bedroom wall all because of NBC’s Knight Rider. (Ah, the power of product placement!)

But while I’m being honest, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Damon and Bale — I’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie I haven’t enjoyed them in —·the faster this movie moved, the less I cared about keeping up with it.

The film follows two high-fiving white guys of the early ’60s: a haunted ex-racer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), driven to get back to hashtag-winning; and the flamboyantly cocky (and cockney?) uber-driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who looks like just the kind of Brit that Ford needs to make American cars great again. But this is about more than just business: Ford needs this bromance to help them settle a manly rivalry — or, rather, a Le Mans-ly rivalry — with Ferrari, a grudge match that boils down to insults about weight and insults about Daddy.

Christian Bale carries the groceries he can’t wait to eat after he’s done slimming down for yet another role.

And they’ll do it, of course. They’ll build a fast car. They’ll hide a winning card up their sleeve. They’ll survive explosive crashes. They’ll sweat bullets taking risks beyond all reason. And they’ll arrive at a strangely familiar moment in which someone’s heart grows a little.

And they’ll make sure that moviegoers overlook the irony here: this is a flashy corporate product exploiting the audience’s eagerness to flip off the Man. The filmmakers focus on Shelby and Miles, each of them singing “I did it my wayyyy” as they fashion a car that will leave the reigning world champs behind. (The movie writes off the Ferrari folks as villains for being… what? Successful and foreign?) And so we get what we came for: loud and rickety races, lots of close-ups of speedometers, men in suits clenching their jaws, Matt Damon chewing gum like a grad from the Brad Pitt Acting Academy, lots and lots of revving noises, and, of course, one furrowed female brow (Caitriona Balfe, her name so much more interesting than her character) hovering over a cute little chip off of Miles’s block.

Ford v Ferrari serves up little more than what the trailer promises. Pixar’s Cars, a film without humans, had more more moments of meaningful humanity than this. It’s hard not to imagine what the film could have been if the movie had had a brave driver at the wheel, one that could effectively buck a system that’s more concerned about a box-office photo finish than art.

“I’m sorry, Bale, but you have to hand over the groceries. You won’t get us an Oscar unless you lose another 25 pounds.”

At its best, it fills the screen with streaming colors and textures, the speakers scream with audio adrenaline, and you can feel the strain as Miles bends the laws of physics to the breaking point. At its worst, its central partnership seems designed to defend the honor of insecure white men who think the big screen belongs to them, a country of smart-ass punchlines and punches thrown.

Sure, it’s a “true story,” but everything is so streamlined and shiny for a mass audience that I don’t believe a minute of it.

“You and me — rebels against the Corporate Man.” (Shelby and Miles clink bottles, making sure that the Coke logo is front and center.)


And, now that I’m looking around, I’m finding that distrust to be well-founded. Let’s just start with Shelby, for example, about whom the movie has zero curiosity — a fact that makes me curious. Richard Brody at The New Yorker turns in some A+ homework here:

[Shelby’s] seen briefly, early on, living alone in a messy trailer, and then isn’t seen at home again, nor is he seen to have any family life or romantic relationships. The elision of Shelby’s private life is a sleight of hand that obscures, above all, the complexity of life—it suggests a sheer unwillingness to contend with facts that don’t easily fit into a sentimental schema. The real Shelby was married seven times, and two or three of those marriages overlapped with the eight-year span covered in “Ford v Ferrari,” and extramarital affairs appear to have been involved, too.

Now that might have made the movie more interesting. But in the story spun by a trio of screenwriters — Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller (who wrote Machine Gun Preacher), Shelby does nothing more than obsess about racing.

Audiences would, of course, prefer to see the clean-cut hero smugly brushing his nay-sayers aside. But why base this on a true story at all if you’re just going to whitewash the complexities of these men in favor of propping up tired American-made delusions? Why not give us more complicated human beings and a story that acknowledges the dark side of obsessions like these?

Tracy Letts takes a drink, knowing he’s the most Oscar-worthy player here, but he’s slowing down so he doesn’t run away with things. In the background, out of focus, Josh Lucas thinks back on days when he was in the driver’s seat.

Don’t get me wrong — a trip through this subtle-as-a-Hummer formula isn’t without its pleasures. The great Tracy Letts me enjoy a few scenes. He’s becoming one of my favorite character actors, and I found myself wishing he’d sneak up and steal the movie from the leads, like he did for me in Lady Bird. Hamming it up as Henry Ford the Second-Rate, he seems to think he’s in a comedy. He’s what kept me from unbuckling my seatbelt and hopping out of this not-particularly-moving car. In fact, at times, with Damon, Bale, and others playing every note at ‘11,’ it’s easy to imagine how much fun this might have been as a parody. (No disrespect, Ricky Bobby.)

As a drama, though… well, at times I catch a hint of Michael Mann’s influence in this air — he’s listed as a producer here — just enough to make me imagine a tougher-minded, truthful examination of the automobile as a vehicle (ahem) for the human ego and ambition, something more humbling and human. But overall, I’m left breathing the fumes of capitalism, nationalism, and, yes, toxic masculinity.

“P-51! Cadillac of the sky!”

P.S. Is it just me, or does Matt Damon’s resemblance to Jesse Plemmons increase the older he gets? How is that possible, since Plemmons is so much younger than him?