The Manly Emotions Of ‘Ford v Ferrari’
The trailer for Ford v Ferrari is great. Zoom go the cars. Damon’s crackin’ wise. Bale may be crazy but, dammit, he gets results. The suits say they want the best, but do they really mean it? Look how scared they get when they see someone who is truly free. Look at that pudgy doofus at the end of the trailer. If it weren’t the mid-60s he be cruisin’ for an “ok boomer!” bruisin’.
That’s the boss, Henry Ford II (nepotism!), thinking he’s as tough as our guys. He’s buckled up in the passenger side of a souped-up race car and — bwaaaaah! — starts sobbing because speed — real speed — has turned him into a frightened little child. Funny moment.
Only that’s not what’s happens in the movie. Not really. The studio marketing department has to get butts in seats, so going for the easy joke is a quick sell. Mr. Tough Talk (Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts? Weird!) saying “I was born ready” and “hit it” juxtaposed with him bawling is a perfect little tag. But when you see the movie (which you should, it’s good as these things go) the scene plays out longer, and, unexpectedly, becomes one of the best scenes of the year. It’s one the rawest portrayals of that rarest of natural resources: unashamed male tears.
Crying! What the hell is that business all about, anyway? What does feeling sad have to do with leaky eyes? I just Googled “why do we cry” and got sent to an article that misuses the phrase “begs the question,” so who the hell knows? The logical answer is that it is a biological signal to others that you are distraught and need comfort. Whether anyone actually does anything, well, that’s not your tear ducts’ department.
But needing help, or being weak in general, is not what a man should do, right? A man needs to show strength at all times, or else the other caveman will bonk you over the head, steal your mate and hurl a bone in the sky as Richard Strauss music plays. Women, sure, they can cry all day, but men? Society tells us they really shouldn’t do it. Still.
I was raised by pretty caring, liberal parents by 1980s standards. They taught me it was okay to cry, but I got a clear indication that they would prefer it if I didn’t. (They also told me it was okay to grow up and marry a black girl, or even for boys to fall in love with other boys, but it would make my life more difficult if I did; this isn’t exactly untrue, but it’s not exactly an unmitigated progressive win.)
My mother is a classic over-cryer. She once cried watching an episode of Happy Days. And “Happy” is right there in the title! My father, never shy about saying “I love you,” and, though he wished I played sports, never seemed to mind when I’d rather memorize Star Trek episodes, has cried in my presence three times. The day we discovered my sister had cancer, one particularly tough day during her treatment and the day of her memorial service.
There was another time he didn’t know I saw him cry. I was very young, and he and my mother were fighting about money. She was spending too much of it, he wasn’t earning enough of it. Half of his co-workers had been laid off. Finally, he flipped out — he didn’t yell, he just collapsed into himself, turned into a screech owl and locked himself in the bathroom.
A few days later, he apologized to the family. He apologized for being upset. He apologized, I guess, for not being a man.
You don’t need much set-up to understand what’s so remarkable in the Ford v Ferrari scene. Carroll Shelby (Damon) and his crew scheme to get Ford away from his yes men for a minute. Shelby needs to talk to him man-to-man. In order to make the automobile Ford claims he wants — and he wants it because that Eye-Talian Enzo Ferrari dared insult him and, by extension, America — Shelby needs two things. He needs the freedom to get the job done and he needs Ken Miles (Bale) as the driver.
Miles is a hothead (if you’ve ever wanted to see a whole movie of Bale as he is in that leaked freakout audio, here it is!) and the middle management idiots don’t like someone they can’t control. Ford knows this, but he’s a pushover. He makes promises to Shelby (the project manager) one minute but gets all squishy the next.
So there’s a cutesy little caper, then finally Shelby gets Ford to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational race car. They tear off on the test track. The music kicks in, the camera glides, the quick turns rattle your bones. We cut back to the garage and one of the guys says “here’s where they start to shit themselves” or something. (I don’t have the exact quote because I was vrooming right along while watching; the driving moments in this movie are really well crafted.)
Damon hits the breaks and, like in the trailer, Letts sobs. And sobs. And director James Mangold holds on the shot. Eventually, we realize that it’s more than just “too fast!” that’s bringing this emotion out of Ford. Finally, he’s able to speak. “If only my father were here to see this!”
What begins as a gag turns into something incredibly touching. Sure, it’s a dumb race car that he personally had nothing to do with other than signing a check, but seeing the Ford name on a vehicle of such power has Ford the Younger burbling up lava of regret and insecurity and admiration and self-doubt and God knows what kind of inferiority one feels when one’s father is Henry Ford. “I had no idea,” he says in shock, not just about the car but about what freedom feels like. He knows he has to trust a righteous man like Shelby.
It’s a great scene because it is unexpected. It’s even better when Damon doesn’t play it for laughs, and he doesn’t use the “haha, I’ve seen you cry” for capital. He lets Letts compose himself, and they get to talking again like businessmen. Because the truth is all men know that all other men cry. We just hope we’re not in a car with another man when it happens.
I did whatever I could to not cry in school as a kid. I had enough working against me, believe me. If this was one thing I could keep in check, it would be one less thing to be taunted for.
I was successful in my goal. This doesn’t mean I didn’t foul-up in other ways and give bullies anti-Hoffman fodder, but tears weren’t one of them. As I got older, the habit just stuck. Here’s something deplorable: later, during one of my first forays into dating, I thought I would appear more sensitive and therefore desirable if I could cry during a sad movie. I tried to will myself into sobs but couldn’t make it happen. I did not score.
When my sister got ill and then, after lengthy and painful treatment, died three years ago, I soon became well acquainted with my tear ducts. I pretty much gave up on not crying in public. But I’ve been wearing too-tight Green Lantern t-shirts at work functions for over a decade, so elegant comportment has never quite been my strong suit. It’s not like I cry all the time now, but when it does come on, I just don’t fight it as I would have when I was younger. Whatever emotional retaining walls I once had have been sanded down. Pass the Kleenex.
What the Ford v Ferrari scene gets so right is something I maybe didn’t understand when I was more reluctant to get misty-eyed. Male tears — or, at least, my male tears — aren’t triggered by just one thing, or even by one emotion. It’s the change-up that gets you.
Ford is walloped with fear (is this car going to flip over, crash and explode????) and then he feels guilty for not trusting Shelby. This quickly shifts to regret about his handling of the Ford legacy and then mourning for his father. This collision of feeling is too much for one head to handle. It’s gotta come out, and our weird biology says it comes out as salty liquid on our face.
The thing that gets me the most, and probably will for the rest of my life, is a certain kind of laughter. I’ll hear a joke, or experience something, then crack-up; then I’ll realize that the one person who’d find this funnier than just about anyone is the one person I can’t tell. And then I’ll get furious. And then I’ll very quickly remember the physical pain of her ultimately ineffectual treatment and get sad. When these extreme emotions go from zero to 60 in 0.48 seconds, it’s something of a hairpin turn into sobsville.
Ford v Ferrari ends with a big race and a bunch and lots of shouting and some macho stuff that didn’t really interest me, to be honest. Enzo Ferrari did nothing wrong. But the look of the picture is absolutely dynamite. Lots of terrific shallow focus and nighttime sheen, as well as zoomtacular automobiles. But after all the death-defying vehicular insanity all I could think about was Tracy Letts (Tracy Letts! The playwright!) exploding into tears as Matt Damon kept his cool. Since everything else about James Mangold’s film is basically Dad Movie of the Year, I think he’s done us all a great service.