FORD v FERRARI

This photo was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Or as some would say: the Holmes in Miles

The world’s best-known detective, Sherlock Holmes, has been interpreted in many ways in the retelling of his stories through the years.

Nowadays, what keeps us glued to his character is less the story and more the example he offers as a fellow loner in world by humans.

It is one of the less acknowledged facts of our furiously networked life – we are lonely. Within that, there is a clear intellectual loneliness starting to proliferate. The bulk of our livelihood and the process of making money, grow on organizations that are often dull for no better reason than that they are organizations or commercially motivated entities. Minds not conforming to this space become liability. Ranks are closed and formations tightened to weed out the unwanted. The consequent loneliness of those forced to right-size has typically no place to seek empathy from, except imaginary companions on the journey like Holmes.

Of all the works based on Holmes, the TV series Elementary comes closest to this paradigm (the older Granada series starring Jeremy Brett is top notch for its loyalty to Holmes as originally conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In one of the episodes (Rat Race: season 1, episode 4), this subsurface spin even explodes to explicit articulation as Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes puts a bunch of bankers in their place, informing them that he has no reason to stand in awe of their industry given he knows well what they do. Listening to it will make those of us who have experienced the coldness of money, happy. It endears as antidote because we live in a period where submission to collective (without adequate inquiry into how the collective operates) is fast becoming smothering ideal. Yet as creative content, Elementary weakens at this point because sometimes the punch in creativity is in how powerfully you wield subtlety for idiom.

That is why the film Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold and currently available on Disney-Hotstar, felt excellent. It tells the real life story of Ford’s quest to perfect the Ford GT 40 and beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France.  With two solid actors – Christian Bale and Matt Damon – in the lead, there is little need for words to describe their effort. What kept me engaged was the brave balance the narrative struck between the innovation, design, engineering and testing that go into making superb cars and the brand-driven intellectual dullness of the capital-laden organizations, which get to build them.  It is a paradox coped with not just in the automotive business but across categories of business and on that count, the film appealed to me despite my attraction for cars not being high.

Ken Miles (played by Bale) is a maverick British race car driver and a struggling mechanic. He knows well how the machinery of a car harmonizes to produce cutting edge performance; he also knows how to harness all that energy like the conductor of an orchestra. For folks like him, the whole thing smacks of art and art is well, for art sake. You don’t cut corners and in your pursuit of a valued ethic, you call a spade, a spade. That isn’t how Leo Beebe (played by Josh Lucas), Ford’s senior vice president, given charge of the company’s racing division, imagines racing. For him, performance on the race track dovetails into feeding the Ford brand and pleasing his boss Henry Ford II. The corporate structure matters. Against this matrix, an eccentric like Miles is not team player enough. And so at the 1966 edition of Le Mans, Beebe recommends the unthinkable with the approval of Henry Ford II. Just when Ferrari’s challenge crumbles and Miles in his Ford GT 40 is firmly in the lead, Beebe tells Carroll Shelby (portrayed by Damon), entrusted with the project of defeating Ferrari, to inform Miles to slow down and finish along with the second and third placed Fords so that it is a great photo opportunity.  Three cars from the same stable cross the finish line together to embellish a brand. It is a terrible moment of averaging individual talent. It even results in fellow Ford drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon being declared winners over Miles by an obscure technical detail (their cars commenced the race a few meters behind Miles’s in the starting order, so in the team finish, that got added in their favor), but the latter takes it in his stride. Miles thanks Shelby for the opportunity he got to race at Le Mans.

Miles’s graciousness masks the tragedy and abject injustice resident in that moment of a company’s triumph. It reminds us of the importance, capital and inevitability by dominance award corporates notwithstanding the human brain remaining unimpressed by such muscle. For a while, depending on what your own experience has been at the hands of organized world, you see Miles as not just race car driver but an emblem of talent scorned. In that universality of Miles’s character, this 2019 film soars beyond being merely a document on the Ford GT 40 and its defeat of Ferrari at an iconic race to being like that fat book compiling Holmes’s adventures you deem must-have in the book shelf. You know life’s disappointments will be many. Refuge to recover should always be at hand. See Ford v Ferrari, if you haven’t. Holmes, Miles – they are utterly different, yet somewhere similar for the reasons they appeal to us.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)           

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