If you’re a moviegoer who’s very interested in obscure stories from the nooks and crannies of the history of the American car industry, 2019 has been your year.
The best of those films is Ford v. Ferrari, which arrived in theaters in mid-November. Directed by James Mangold, Ford v. Ferrari is the thrilling story about a couple of guys who used a Ford car to win a race against Ferrari at the Le Mans road race in 1966.
You’d think, from the title, that the movie would be a celebration of American ingenuity and an extolling of the Ford Motor Company itself. But that’s not really what it is – the movie makes the management of Ford, especially Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) look like bean-counting idiots, while the heroes are good ol’ boy designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
…there’s an audience for exciting stories about American car history… provided they feature big stars, exciting races, and center around the cars themselves.
Both lead actors are just outstanding here, with both doing accents far away from how they typically speak. Damon abandons his Boston brogue to do a Southern accent, while Bale does a very different regional British accent from his natural Welsh tilt. Meanwhile, Outlander‘s Caitriona Balfe, as Bale’s wife, makes quite an impression, even if she is the only woman in this very male movie who actually gets speaking lines.
It goes into the longstanding battles within the car industry of engineers vs. bean counters, and of American vs. foreign, and at the center of those is Jon Bernthal’s Lee Iacocca, in a brief performance that I’d really love to see the same actor re-visit in a full-on biopic of that legendary auto executive.
The film may largely eschew sports movie cliches, but there is a prototypical “Big Game At the End”, which in this case is the Le Mans race itself. But Mangold renders this 24-hour race gorgeously. I still can’t believe the race actually begins with the participants running across the track into their cars.
DeLorean v. DeLorean
When the world of movies is crossed with the word “DeLorean,” it’s almost always in relation to the car-based time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. But 2019 saw the release of two different movies about the eponymous creator of that car, John DeLorean.
The first of those, Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s Framing John DeLorean, came out in the spring and was a bizarre documentary/live action hybrid about John DeLorean’s car company and its fall, which came after DeLorean was charged with drug trafficking in the early 1980s.
The documentary part is intriguing, even if you don’t know this history, and it establishes what a big deal it was when DeLorean left General Motors and started his own company.
Less successful though, are the dramatic reenactments, featuring Baldwin as DeLorean and Morena Baccarin as his wife Cristina Ferrare. It’s not Alec Baldwin’s best performance as a venal rich guy this year (that would be in Motherless Brooklyn), but it’s not his worst either (that’s still his listless Trump impression on Saturday Night Live).
Driven is an oddly specific story to make a movie about with somewhat odd choice of focuses, but it works…
For another look at DeLorean’s fall from grace, there was a different movie this year, titled Driven. Directed by Nick Hamm and released in August, this film told the story of the drug bust, through the eyes of “Jim Hoffman” (Jason Sudeikis), the informant from the fateful drug case. Playing the car entrepreneur, very capably, is Lee Pace, channeling much of the same business-alpha energy as he brought to AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
Driven is an oddly specific story to make a movie about with somewhat odd choice of focuses, but it works, thanks largely to the very ’80s California setting, and also the two lead performances and fine supporting turns from Corey Stoll (as an FBI handler) and Judy Greer (as Hoffman’s wife).
Cars of tomorrow
Neither DeLorean film made much of a box office dent (with the latter mostly relegated to VOD), but Ford v. Ferrari has been a decent-sized hit, proving that there’s an audience for exciting stories about American car history… provided they feature big stars, exciting races, and center around the cars themselves.