Ford v Ferrari is an extremely compressive take on the 1966 Le Mans race. Maybe a bit too comprehensive as it tends to get repetitive, but the race scenes are incredibly stirring and director James Mangold (Logan) gives each scene some difference to make it unique. Basically, the characters are sort of static but the performances are energetic which makes the racing scenes lively. It’s a bit long in the tooth and is a bit in love with the minute details of car making and corporate management but when it starts moving, it soars.
In the mid– ’60s, Ford Motor Company needs an image makeover as Ferrari cars are the fanciest in the land. So up and coming Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposes that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) beat Ferrari at the race track. They enlist the help of automotive designer and former race–car driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to build them a new car. Carroll needs the best race car driver around, so he enlists the snarky and nasty but great Ken Miles (Christian Bale). But the car needs a lot of work, some of it very dangerous, and the power controlling Ford executive Leo (Josh Lucas) doesn’t like Miles anyway. All of these people need to work together for the eventual 24–hour race, the 1966 Le Mans, assuming the car literally doesn’t blow up in their faces first.
Bale and Damon are at the core of this movie, and they make a great straight man/weird guy pairing. Bale is using his natural accent as Miles and is a crazy character that lets him be funny, snarky, and oddly heartfelt at moments. He’s a wild Brit who has had it with the crusty suits who run Ford. Miles has an antagonistic relationship with executive Leo which probably stems from when Leo unveiled the Ford Mustang and Miles immediately rips it as a piece of junk.
There’s also a lot of Miles and his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and Miles’ son (Noah Jupe) which shows Miles’ softer side. The wife has had it with her husband’s antics, and there is the mandatory scene of them worrying about where they are going to get money in the future. Balfe does get in one standout bit when she is driving Miles on a regular road and gets incredibly frustrated, so she starts driving like a race car driver while hollering at him. The interaction between the son and Miles gives an often crazy character some heart, although the kid is basically just wide eyed and earnest in almost every scene. Still, it does work emotionally which makes the final scenes resonant.
Damon has the less flashier part but he still gets in some good moments. His best scene is the opening bit which shows how determined Shelby was in his race car days but his racing days are numbered due to a heart condition. Another great bit is when Shelby rehires Miles after firing him which leads to a comedically awkward brawl. The buddy relationship between the two is solid and has some good payoffs. Lucas as the mean Ford executive is a perfectly insufferable jerk. The script seems more interested in Ford than how interesting the character actually is but, still, the moment when Shelby takes Leo for a spin is incredibly entertaining. As the Ford executive who comes up with the idea, Bernthal has a cool bit when he explains to Ford why the company should try to outrace Ferrari for their image, and his recruitment scenes where he tries to get people on his side are compelling but he mostly disappears after the first 30 minutes.
Where Ford v Ferrari sings is a palpable sense of movement to the car testing and racing scenes. The car that Ford builds starts off as a clunker but Shelby and Miles systematically tear it down to it’s core and rebuild it. Shelby entices Miles to drive by letting him take the car for a spin and even though Miles complains about its quality he still feels compelled to keep driving, an urge Bale conveys perfectly. The movie goes through almost too much painstaking detail about the stages they went through to remake the car but each bit is different, especially in one literally fiery moment when the brakes fail and Miles has to escape the wreck while his family is watching. Mangold gives each time period during the climatic Le Mans 24 race its own distinct flair, and the final scene where Miles has to obey a dictate from Ford about ending the race features some good tension. Even though the film is a lot of racing again and again, it never devolves into feeling the same thing again and again.
Ford v Ferrari offers up an interesting period piece about an unexamined era of automotive history and the changes it caused. But even with the incredible amount of vrooming and speed, the core friendship and sometimes antagonistic interactions between the two leads gives it a compelling story. And then the cars go really fast a lot and things are flying. V
FORD v FERRARI
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon,
Christian Bale and Jon Bernthal