When Matt sold the Ferrari

Published: Nov 13, 2019, 04:58 IST | Mayank Shekhar |

How do you lend depth to a Fast & Furious-type racing flick? With Ford v Ferrari, which is releasing this Friday

The film essentially chronicles a time when Ford, although an auto behemoth, was a fuddy-duddy car that families owned, but nobody cared much for. Pic/ Instagram
The film essentially chronicles a time when Ford, although an auto behemoth, was a fuddy-duddy car that families owned, but nobody cared much for. Pic/ Instagram

MayankApocryphal as most hop-on-hop-off tourist bus stories are, I was once told about a race that took place in New York City, between automobile giants General Motors (GM) and Chrysler. Both companies fighting over who should have the tallest penis in Manhattan decided to embark on an office construction back in the 1920s. This was during the peak of the American economic boom. Neither knew what the height of the rival's building was going to be.

Eyeing the altitude as it kept piling up, both GM and Chrysler would keep adding a floor, and a few more, looking at the competing structure coming up. Until, at some point, they had to stop because they couldn't possibly carry on forever.

GM eventually won. Theirs was the Empire State Building — the tallest structure (for several years). Chrysler Building lost out, yes, but remains still a stunning piece, talking to the sky. It's only as recently as yesterday that I realised that the story's absolutely untrue!

It sounds believable enough, so I'm not going to knock myself for assuming it to be history all this time. For, at the heart of it is the human ego. As is the case with the biographical sports film Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, that opens in theatres this Friday.

The film, set in the 1960s, essentially chronicles a time when Ford, although an auto behemoth, was a fuddy-duddy car that families owned, but nobody cared much for, because it just wasn't cool enough. Think Maruti, in the Indian context. Roughly speaking, what did Ford decide to do to up their street cred? Buy out Ferrari! What did Ferrari do in return? Insult Ford.

And I mean this not in terms of one company staving off a take-over as any other would. But the take-down was quite literal, given that both Ferrari and Ford were real people, owning firms with their family names. So, Enzo Ferrari basically called Henry Ford II, "pig-headed, fat," and a loser next to his illustrious father.

What did that set off? The battle to build the fastest Ford car that could screw Ferrari at Le Mans, a 24-hour endurance race, which the latter had been winning consecutively through the decade. Ford hires a design genius Carrol Shelby (Damon), who in turn brings on board a maverick racing-car driver Ken Miles (Bale).

Together, they set out to test the limits of speed.

I don't know exactly what was the deal struck with the Indian publishing industry in the 1990s. Those of my vintage will distinctly recall how there was a point (much like with Ayn Rand's Fountainhead), every desi uncle, aunty, and their kids had read the autobiography of Lee Iacocca (a Ford, and later, a Chrysler employee), of all people — whether in hardcover, paperback or pirated prints picked off the street.

The book (co-authored by William Novak) was first published in the mid-'80s. From what I can recall, it wasn't quite a self-help-type book either. It had a little bit of drama. Be that as it may, most Indians had become fans of Iacocca (for reasons unknown to me).

There is Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) in Ford v Ferrari. But his role is quite limited to being Ford's minion. And with very little authority over a conniving fellow (Josh Lucas), who has the proprietor's ears. Now, this top Ford employee simply hates the eccentric Miles, for reasons centered on ego alone. He just wants to wallop that racing-car driver, who can bring the company much glory. He probably just doesn't like his face, or the way he talks, I don't know.

Why are all these peripherals essential? Because, they provide a plot to a boys-with-toys genre, which usually neither has one nor needs any. For all that people want to feel is an adrenaline rush over cars manoeuvring at break-neck speed. Consider Fast & Furious — whichever part it's on now.

I do get some of that excitement. But I'm not really a racing-car fan, to a point that it's impossible for me to fathom why crowds show up at Formula One races, where all you can see is a machine whizzing past you in a nanosecond, from wherever you're in the stands.

Is Ford v Ferrari the most cerebral form of a racing-car flick, with all the genre accoutrements — the thumping heart rate, the camera zipping in motion, the blasts, and the mind-bending turns? In a geeky sort of way, yes. At any rate, it seems to be an Oscar season release. Which is already saying a lot.

There's nothing in this period film that both the dad and the kid won't like. Here's what the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), perennially scratching depths of stupidity, didn't like about Ford v Ferrari — people getting a drink in the film. I'm not kidding you — they've actually blurred bottles and glasses with booze in it. Cheers to that.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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