Ford v Ferrari (2019), written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, is a film that sounds epic. And with a focus on auto racing and Carroll Shelby, and with references to cool guys like Steve McQueen, it’s bound to entertain. But before we hear the sound of the engine, the script had to be written. Let’s analyze it.
- Draft Read: “Red Original Final Shooting Draft 04.24.19”
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 143
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Los Angeles, Michigan, England, Le Mans
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple months
- Genre(s): Biopic, Action
- Theme(s): Auto racing, Love, Devotion to one’s craft, Friendship
- Protagonist Change: Moderate
Sometimes one knows when they are reading the works of experienced screenwriters. This was one of those times. Simply put, through clever dialogue and quick but descriptive action lines, the script is tight. But the plot? It feels somewhat misguided.
A tight script is one that reads well, has little to no wasted space, and is easy to visualize. That’s not all that common, and this script earns that distinction.
The script also has very well-defined characters (see below).
And of course, auto racing is fun. Action line can be boring, this script has great ones:
THE WRECK OF THE TWO FRENCH CARS. All Scarfiotti can do is swerve, SMASHING INTO A SAND BANK, then he gets spun by an impact with another car. He sits, stunned, lucky to survive.
Dare I call a screenplay an old-man script? Because you’d have to be to remember Le Mans ’66. And the characters themselves are older, none under the age of 40. When I think of sports, I think of young guys (and gals). But older men are experienced in life, and bring baggage. And much of the script is spent trying to unpack that. This brings me to another point; there isn’t a clear villain.
Is the villain Ferrari? It seems like the writers try to support this notion by having Ferrari screw Ford at the signing table, but Ferrari’s bait and switch and the resulting blowback feel rushed if he is to be the primary antagonist. Plus, who would root against Ferrari? Okay, the bad guy could be Leo Beebe, the Ford exec trying to pull Miles, the Shelby driver, out of the race. But Shelby goes over his head directly to Henry Ford II and gets his blessing before the race, thereby negating him as a true villain. There are other competing drivers too, but none really seem like a threat. Or maybe the true villain is internal; Shelby’s and Mile’s need for speed, which the film suggests ultimately brought the latter’s death.
We also run into the area of who the protagonist is. Certainly the film doesn’t involve an ensemble cast, so is it Shelby, or Miles (who ultimately steals the show)? Shelby has the more significant change, but Miles is the driver, the athlete, the guy we should love because he loves his craft.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the conflict feels unfocused. I’ll get to that in the next section.
Which sports movies work well? I’ll throw out some titles: Rocky (1976), Rudy (1993), Remember the Titans (2000), Miracle (2004).
What do all these films have in common? They all focus on the underdog.
The Ford team in Ford vs. Ferrari doesn’t feel like an underdog. First, they have Shelby, who won the race as a driver in 1959. Then there is Ferrari, the opponent, who is bankrupt. Finally, Ford, the largest car company in America (the world?), is on their side. The writers try to play up the drama, but the challenge doesn’t feel well… like an (almost) insurmountable challenge, which one would expect.
The characters are all well thought out. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are entertaining from the moment they are introduced. It’s a shame that so much of the movie tries to draw up the conflict between them and the Ford bureaucracy, because it may just be more entertaining to see them talk about and race cars and deal with the challenges of making the cars faster, sleeker, lighter, cheaper, etc.
Dialogue & Pacing
Strong dialogue. I didn’t note any specific parts, but it’s worth reading to get more familiar with strong writing. Also worth noting is the use of voiceovers, which are expertly used at the beginning and toward the end.
The screenplay builds up to the Le Mans ’66 race on Page 112 (79% of the way through the script). Just from reading the script, it’s obvious this is going to be a cinematographic masterpiece. None of the scenes feel slow and there aren’t any lagging parts.
It’s tricky to say how impactful this movie is. In some regard, we look into the lives of people born to be racers, or more broadly, people destined to do certain things. Miles explains this on Page 40, “They (Ford execs) all just want to please their boss, who just wants to please his boss… but deep down who they really hate is guys like you. Because you’re not like them… You are different.”
I’d wager that’s a pretty standard Biopic theme. Because people who are different are intriguing. But we don’t quite get enough background or feel Shelby undergo a transformational change, either internal or external (yes, he kind of changes toward the end in his showroom/garage, but it’s not strong), and therefor the film’s overall emotional impact is marginal.
Best Part of The Script
The opening to the movie is fantastic. The first 5 pages do a great job introducing us to Shelby and his worldview.