Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari
By Matthew Huntley
December 7, 2019
As a sports drama, “Ford v Ferrari” is more interesting and informative than emotional and compelling, which is fine, because interesting and informative make the movie just as watchable. The way it handles its genre’s usual plot and character developments isn’t exactly inspired, but it does excel in the areas where it probably matters most given the subject matter, and that’s in the car and racing sequences. They are energetic and convincing without being deafening or over-the-top. These, combined with a particularly notable performance from Christian Bale, add up to an overall solid cinematic experience and, I’m assuming, a mostly accurate representation of a touchstone moment in motorsports history.
Based on an original screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, “Ford v Ferrari” chronicles the Ford Motor Company’s years-long quest to win the 1966 Le Mans sports race and ultimately steal the crown from reigning Ferrari, which had captured the title for the past six years. For the prideful old boys’ club members of Ford, winning Le Mans was personal after Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) refused a 1963 takeover deal from Ford’s Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and, according to the movie, said, “Ford makes ugly little cars in ugly factories.” He allegedly also called Ford’s CEO, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), “fat.”
Refusing to go down without a fight, Ford enlists former race car driver and one-time Le Mans champion Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to “go to war” and oversee the engineering of a new Ford vehicle that would not only break speed records but also guarantee victory. It’s Shelby’s personal story that actually opens the film. We see him drift and lose focus during his last race, after which he’s forced into early retirement when doctors tell him he has an unstable heart condition.
Since then, Shelby heads a small, Los Angeles-based racing team, which includes the heavy-British-accented Ken Miles (Bale), who loves racing but mostly does it as a side gig while trying to keep his mechanic’s garage afloat. Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) is Ken’s dedicated and level-headed wife and Peter (Noah Jupe) his enthusiastic, curious son. They stand by Ken through thick and thin as the once unbelievable idea of racing Le Mans slowly becomes a reality.
Following a rather routine setup, “Ford v Ferrari” starts to gain traction around the one-third mark when it begins to enlighten us on all the planning, testing, mechanics, logistics, etc. that go into designing and building a car, details the movie not only makes coherent but also fascinating, especially when it comes to a race car, the parts of which need to be taken off and replaced at any given moment and where factors such as weight and the type of metal play a very crucial part. We witness all the trials and errors Shelby and Miles’ crew endures, including unexpected malfunctions and near-fatal crashes, not to mention the corporate bureaucracy looming over their endeavor, particularly from Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Ford’s brownnosing senior executive VP, who thinks Miles should be replaced by a more experienced driver.
Director James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “Logan”) presents this story mostly linearly, and as one conflict plays out after another, eventually culminating in Ford unleashing its GT40 model at Le Mans, the movie has an air of “then this happened, then this happened…” It’s this safe and straightforward approach to the material that keeps our emotional investment in the events somewhat at bay, because even though the characters are down-to-earth, likable and vulnerable, the machinations of the genre overshadow the potential drama and limit the number of would-be surprises. In the back of our minds, we know “Ford v Ferrari” is more or less a standard underdog tale, one that’s based on an “incredible true story” no less, and so we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to turn out (and if you’re already aware of the history of the actual 1966 Le Mans race, then you know for certain). We also know, given the genre, that as the heroes prepare for the race, they will have to overcome the usual hurdles, growing pains, close-calls and run-ins with “villains” that characterize so many movies of this type.
That being said, Mangold and his team avoid letting the inevitabilities of the genre stall the movie’s momentum or limit its appeal. They seem so captivated by the pure science and possibilities of auto engineering and the stalwart determination of the characters that their enthusiasm spreads to us. Even though I watched “Ford v Ferrari” mostly objectively and more as a history lesson and tutorial on sports car endurance racing (Le Mans is actually 24 hours long, which I didn’t know) than as an involving narrative, the details embedded in the script are engrossing just the same. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the movie never wavers as we bear witness to the constant physical, mechanical and political battles being fought up to and on race day. We walk away from it having gained a real sense of what auto racing is like.
Much of this is owed to the film’s superb cinematography, special effects, sound and stunts, which blend seamlessly and are rich, vibrant and believable. They don’t necessarily feel overwhelming (like, say, a “Fast and the Furious” movie) but still place us in what feels like the real race car driving world. They make “Ford v Ferrari” exhilarating at times.
As I mentioned, one dramatic quality that should be especially recognized is Christian Bale’s performance. How accurately Bale resembles or mimics the real Ken Miles is beside the point; what matters is that he creates an original, genuine, and multi-faceted character we truly believe in, root for, and with whom we empathize. Miles is such a force and beacon of hope and positivity on-screen that it’s just a pleasure to watch him do his thing, whether it’s compromising with his wife, encouraging his son, or self-reflecting before, during and after a race. There’s something very real about him and as I watched Bale disappear into the role, I had to remind myself this was the same actor who played Laurie in “Little Women,” Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter,” and Batman/Bruce Wayne in “The Dark Knight” movies. The man has range and he reminds of that here.
Even though “Ford v Ferrari” didn’t move me as much as I would have liked, there’s something to be said for what it taught me, and I’m willing to bet more ardent fans of race car driving will find it works on several emotional levels. In fact, this movie seems to have been made for them. It takes the art, craft and skills of race car driving seriously and shows us just how much goes into it and gets us to really think about the minutiae that could either plague or aid racing teams. The movie may not have held heart’s attention to the greatest effect, but it certainly held my mind’s.