The 46th annual Telluride Film Festival got underway Friday afternoon in roaring fashion with the world premiere of director James Mangold’s supercharged, terrifically entertaining Ford v Ferrari. It’s the tale of two combative, distinctly different but eccentric car artists and car makers, played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who take on the task of bringing supremacy to Ford Motor Co. with the fastest car on the tracks at the biggest race of the year, the 24 hours of Le Mans.
If ever there was one this is a true movie movie — a muscular, fast-paced (even if it runs 152 minutes, it seems like 20), character-driven, bigger-than-life true story that has all the stuff I love about the craft of moviemaking. It is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the race track.
Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it pits two big male movie stars against each other and delivers on every cylinder (OK, enough with the car cliches), an old fashioned example of a pure crowd-pleaser that in my opinion should appeal just as much to moviegoers as it will to Academy members who appreciate the craft of movies on a large scale, those that only belong on the biggest screen possible. That’s Ford v Ferrari.
I predict not only will this become a huge word-of-mouth box office hit for Fox and Disney (which now owns the studio and will be distributing in November in time for the holdiay season), it should also handily figure in numerous categories at the Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (for Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller), Film Editing, Cinematography, both Sound categories, and a few acting nods.
The big question is whether strategists try to split the two leading actors into two categories — a likely scenario with Damon in lead, and Bale just great again in a meaty supporting role as the wildcat, hugely talented driver Ford hates but Damon knows can bring home a win if anyone can in the seemingly impossible race to beat Ferrari at its own game, this after being spurned by the Italian automaker when the Detroit giant tried to take them over. The head of Ford then, in the mid 1960s when this all happened, was Henry Ford II, and he is played to the hilt by Tracy Letts, another cast member deserving of a supporting actor nomination if you ask me.
This ought to be catnip for the Academy because it represents big screen moviemaking at its best. Jon Bernthal is also excellent as a younger Lee Iacocca and Josh Lucas is the guy you love to hate as a goody two-shoes corporate suit trying to impress his boss. Catriona Balfe is also very fine as Bale’s wife, and their scenes together with their son (Noah Jupe) have a real poignancy to them.
A project that has been kicking around for the better part of a decade, Mangold and his writers cracked it and make it work on all levels, from the sensational edge-of-the-seat driving sequences to the human factor of which it never loses sight. With every film, this writer-director reminds me more of one of the greats like Howard Hawks, who could excel in just about every genre and always changed things up knowing the story was king, not genre. Mangold seems to do it all, from drama (Girl Interrupted) to thriller (Identity), musical biopic (Walk the Line), action comedy (Knight and Day), Westerns (3:10 to Yuma) and sci-fi Western elegies like the Oscar-nominated Logan which was the perfect finale for Wolverine which he also directed.
In brief remarks before the film screened for the first time at the festival’s “Patrons Screening” today (which also included media members). Mangold explained this was the first time he had been to the Telluride festival since Walk the Line in 2004. He recalled seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman, who touched his hand and simply said “Beautiful, beautiful” after seeing that movie here. Then he went to a restaurant and sat with Roger Ebert, who had championed his first film, the indie Heavy. It all just reminded him of past friendships — in these cases two people now gone.
“I’m saying all this to get around to the fact that they have race cars playing in the promos making it look like the film might be all about race cars,” he said. “But to me this movie is all about friendship, and friends who we meet as we make things. And that’s how I connected to it more than anything.”
Indeed, even though they were sometimes at loggerheads, Damon’s character Carroll Shelby and Bale’s British race car driver Ken Miles were above all friends, ultimately united in this unique and challenging quest to show off the fastest car in the world and fight all the corporate suits along the way. It is a story that really has it all in so many ways. The Telluride audience seemed to be with it all the way too, and word among those exiting was clearly two thumbs up — a great start to the festival.
Disney which now controls Fox and their movies (recently reportedly tearing up most of the development slate) knows not to mess with this one and has kept the same November 15 release date always planned. The Mouse House knows they have a winner, even if it is a Fox movie all the way. In fact, former Fox distribution president Chris Aronson told me months ago when he was still at the studio and before the merger was finaized that Ford v Ferrari was a winner.
He was right. It is.