***WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for Ford v Ferrari!***
Did you know that the Ford Motor Company tried to buy Ferrari in the 1960s?
I sure didn’t, and probably would have gone on not knowing if it hadn’t been for Ford v Ferrari, which is a captivating and high octane look at one of the biggest rivalries in automotive history.
Helmed by James Mangold—a director who proved he knew how to effectively handle history in 2005’s Walk the Line—the film (in theaters Nov. 15) could have easily been a glorified car commercial that only focused on cool drivers and even cooler cars. Luckily, it’s not that—at least not entirely.
In One Hell of a Smart Gear Shift, Mangold Makes the Cars Ride Shotgun to the Characters.
Set in the early ‘60s, Ford v Ferrari is about the efforts of car designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and the aptly-named racer, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), to craft a Ford race car capable of beating Ferrari at the famed 24-hour racing competition in Le Mans, France. This automotive arms race would lead to the creation of the Ford GT40.
But before we even get to that point, the script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller expertly lays down the dramatic and emotional stakes. When the story kicks off, Ford, Led by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), is stagnating creatively and needs a way to remain relevant in a market now dominated by young Baby Boomers with a surplus of cash in their pockets.
It’s a young Lee Iacocca (a smooth-talking Jon Bernthal plays the man behind car models like the Mustang and Pinto) who comes up with the bright idea to try and outpace the handmade craftsmanship of Ferrari. When an offer to buy the Italian car company only drives old Enzo (Remo Girone) into the arms of Fiat, Ford turns to Shelby for help in building the fastest car in the world.
In turn, Shelby—a gruff and somewhat unscrupulous visionary—recruits Miles, a genius behind the wheel of a car, but not a guy who works well with others. It’s this pairing that makes Ford v Ferrari so irresistibly watchable and the match-up of Damon and Bale could not have been more perfect.
Both play men with very large personalities, but when placed in the same space, these characters are able to harmoniously co-exist, bouncing off one another and kickstarting magnetic chemistry just like the turning of an ignition kickstarts a car’s engine.
Damon gets a lot of good comedic moments (keep an eye out for his stopwatch antics) as Shelby, but it’s Bale who really represents the beating heart of the story. Always the method actor, the Batman alum fully inhabits the Cockney-accented Miles, a person who loves racing just as much as he loves his wife and son (played by Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe respectively).
Even when Ken devises a way to make his car lighter or beats a speed record, he’s never truly satisfied. He’s living proof that you can take the driver out of the car, but you can’t take the car out of the driver. Unfortunately, that fact doesn’t come with the happiest of endings for Miles who perished in a test drive in the summer of ’66.
Whether or not this was a dramatic license on the part of the filmmakers, Ken ends up finding a sort of inner peace and decides to slow down for once in his life. It’s a nice conclusion to his arc after he’s spent most of the movie acting like an obstinate SOB.
Aside from Ferrari, the main villain of the film is Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the head of Ford’s racing program who doesn’t care for Miles and is more concerned about the company’s image than he does about having the right people for the job. A one-dimensional villain, Beebe is one of the movie’s few weak spots, a cliched douche who places obstacles in front of Carroll and Miles for no good reason.
The last 40 minutes or so are devoted to the 1996 Le Mans, where (spoiler!) Ford won for the very first time. Whether you know the outcome of the race or not, it’s still a thrilling and nitrous-fueled ride through one of the largest endurance tests humanity has created for itself.
The last third of the film throws you right into the driver’s seat and floors the gas pedal until you’re speeding at a minimum of 200 miles per hour. Thanks to some great and immersive sound design by Jay Wilkinson and David Giammarco, the engine purrs inside of your head like an angry tiger, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Even when the race is over and you’re catching your breath, the film throws a few extra curveballs your way. The handful of scenes after Le Mans could have been cut (the film runs over two-and-a-half hours), but they do help tie up the story in a neat emotional bow if you’re a big fan of closure.
And because the film cares so much about the characters and story, Ford v Ferrari doesn’t drag its feet or go through the motions during the non-racing sequences, which, if I had to nitpick anything, do contain some glaringly CGI cars.
That and Lucas’ villain are really the only issues that stood out to me. Beyond that, Mangold and his crew nail the rest, romanticizing the vehicles of the ‘60s in the same way that George Lucas did in America Graffiti. Add in a ton of golden hour cinematography from DP Phedon Papamichael, the production design of François Audouy, the costumes of Daniel Orlandi, and you’ve got one pretty-looking movie.
To cross the proverbial finish line, this is a film that will satisfy car aficionados as well as those individuals (like me) who know absolutely nothing about automotive care. For my buddy who tinkers with his car all the livelong day, it was an engaging look into the history of his hobby. For me, it was an intriguing and approachable introduction to the world of mechanophilia.
Ford v Ferrari is like the minivan of movies—it has enough room for everyone.