Monday, April 20, 2015

Tribeca ’15: A Faster Horse

It is a scrappy underdog story, whose hero is the world’s oldest automotive company. Granted, old Henry Ford was a hard cuss to love, but at a time when we lucky taxpayers were underwriting all of its competitors’ bad decisions and Detroit, the seat of the nation’s auto industry, was declaring bankruptcy, it was hard to root against the Ford Motor Company. Not only did they refuse government bailout money, they announced an ambitious redesign of their signature vehicle, the Mustang, to be released in time for its fiftieth anniversary. It will be Chief Program Engineer Dave Pericak’s task to ensure the new Mustang is both innovative but also true to the beloved car’s tradition. David Gelb follows the process from drawing board to dealer lot in A Faster Horse (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Yes, Steve McQueen drove a Mustang in the eternally cool Bullitt chase scene. Yet, the Mustang was conceived as a high performance car that was affordable for middle class consumers—a classically American concept if ever there was one. However, it was not so easy convincing Henry Ford II, who was still smarting from the Edsel. Horse gives full credit to then Ford exec Lee Iacocca for his role in championing the Mustang. Gelb also nicely captures the love and esteem many Mustang enthusiasts and motor clubs have for their car of choice.

Nonetheless, most of film follows the design, testing, and manufacturing process. Frankly, it is refreshing to see a film that values commerce and industry. Gelb is also fortunate that most of the Ford team are enthusiastic and rather eloquent. After all, they are all delighted to be working on the pride of the company’s fleet. Whether you are in engineering or marketing, everyone at Ford wants to work on the Mustang—and if you work at General Motors, you want to be at Ford.

Clearly, there are real stakes at play in Horse. However, Gelb does not merely bury his lede, he covers it in cement and drops it in the East River. The GM and Fiat Chrysler bailouts and Detroit’s economic woes are briefly mentioned at the start of the doc, only to be neatly swept under the rug. Given the situation, the guts and vision of the Mustang redevelopment project were rather remarkable.

Not to be spoilery, but Horse ends on a wholly satisfying note. Let’s be honest, there is a reason Gelb’s film is about the Mustang instead of the Camaro. It is more-or-less the same reason Ford has outperformed its subsidized rivals. Fifty years from now, you will probably still be able to get your Mustangs serviced. Had it been less timid in exploring the full economic and political context of the fiftieth anniversary redesign, Horse could have been a truly great documentary. As it stands, it is highly watchable and a nice change of pace from the typical demonization of the auto industry. Recommended for car fans and viewers fascinated by processes, A Faster Horse screens again tonight (4/20), Thursday (4/23), and Saturday (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.