Ford v Ferrari (2019)
They took the American dream for a ride.
I’m not a rev-head — the only thing I know about racing is Mario Kart — but I loved Ford v Ferrari. You see, this isn’t a film about racing. It’s not even a film about one big car manufacturer versus another; it’s the story of two underdogs versing two big corporations, and, by extension, the pains of the creative process. It’s a roaring story that focuses on characters; it’s an uplifting, nerve-shredding ride about setting ego aside and pushing one another beyond our limits. Directed by James Mangold — who’s spent the last few years making superhero films The Wolverine (2013) and Logan (2017) — Ford v Ferrari feels like an epic Hollywood movie from yesteryear — think Forrest Gump (1994) or Apollo 13 (1995). It tells the real-life tale of the Ford Motor Company’s efforts to build a car fast and sturdy enough to beat Ferrari at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.
It’s 1963, and Ford Motor Company (who were once industry leaders) are trailing in sales behind their U.S. competitors. To keep the company alive and make their vehicles more appealing to boomers, marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests the company focus on speed. Since no one made faster or sexier cars than Ferrari, Ford CEO Henry Ford II, aka The Deuce (a scenery-chewing Tracy Letts), sends some of his top executives down to Ferrari headquarters to discuss an ill-conceived merger, since the Italians were running low on cash. Of course, Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) — depicted as some kind of mafia boss — is outraged by the offer, insulting Ford and sending their men packing. Enraged, The Deuce decides to hit back on the racetrack, putting senior vice president Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) in charge of creating a car that could rival Ferrari, Ford hoping to defeat Enzo’s team at a competition referred to as the ‘Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency,’ the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But, when it came to sports racing back in the 1960s, nobody could touch Ferrari — they were just too good.
This venture leads them to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a championship driver who won Le Mans back in 1959. Since then, heart problems have forced Shelby to retire, the ex-racer reinventing himself as a car designer and salesman, operating out of a storehouse in Venice Beach with a team of other grease monkeys — including short-tempered British test driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a rough World War II veteran and family man who also worked as a low-rent mechanic in Los Angeles.
Given his expertise and knowhow, Ford hires Shelby and his team — which also consists of chief engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon) and young mechanic Charlie Agapiou (Jack McMullen) — to develop, test, and manage their entire racing program, tasking them to craft a car that could go fast, and was able to withstand the extreme conditions of Le Mans. Things get complicated when Ford decides that Shelby’s choice driver Miles, who’s too blunt and unwilling to compromise, is a bad fit for the company’s image, even though he’s brilliant behind the wheel. Now, with a slew of corporate setbacks to contend with, Shelby and Miles must work tirelessly to finish their design and unveil the new Ford GT40 to the world — a revolutionary vehicle that could very well win them Le Mans if steered by the right driver.
Focusing on the problems that went down during the development of the Ford GT40 (both mechanically and personally), the screenplay penned by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), along with Jason Keller, Escape Plan (2013), hones in on the creative process without getting too specific on the nitty-gritty, keeping things accessible for a wider audience. As with most ‘versus’ movies, there are no ‘real’ villains here either, just different sides with different objectives and mindsets. Shelby and Miles are talented, passionate guys working had to create something special, while the company they’re working for is trying to micromanage the whole thing to keep everyone in check. It’s the classic case of corporation versus the little guys, a reality that’s still prevalent and arguably even more fascinating today — movie studios versus filmmakers, online creators versus platforms, and so on. The script also highlights several valuable life lessons about friendliness and working as part of a team. The film essentially shows us how Miles’ hot-headed attitude quickly makes him an enemy of Leo Beebe (sure, he’s kinda smug but that’s beside the point), and how one careless interaction can go on to cause grief in the future, with Beebe trying to manipulate Shelby or sabotage Miles’ involvement in the undertaking at every given turn.
With that said, Ford v Ferrari never loses sight of its enthralling protagonists, who are big personalities rendered with clearly defined goals — Carroll is seeking to reclaim the glory of his former days as his illness has forced him to quit his greatest love, the racing scene, while Ken is trying to overcome the failings caused by his prickly temper, hoping to make ends meet financially to support his family (coz customer service ain’t cutting it for him).
Glowing with odd-couple chemistry, Matt Damon, The Martian (2015), and Christian Bale, Vice (2018), really make this motor run, the characters’ friendship, camaraderie, and dynamic working as the film’s pulsating heart. Damon is brilliant as Carroll, a guy who can talk his way out of any tough situation, while Bale is simply magnetic, the 45-year-old delivering a career-best turn as the ramshackle underdog Ken Miles, regularly seen with his yellow teacup in hand — he’s certainly got my vote for a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. A scene where the men trade blows outside Miles’ house, while his unfazed wife sits down with a magazine in hand and waits for the boys to duke it out, is a real zinger. Speaking of which, Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe does an admirable job as Miles’ sympathetic wife Mollie, while Noah Jupe, Wonder (2017), gets a lot of mileage out of his small role as Ken’s young son Peter, who idolizes his father and the race track but understands the dangers involved in the profession.
Akin to the film’s polished, well-assembled vehicles, Mangold’s direction is tight and terrific, the whole movie standing out from a technical standpoint. The visceral driving scenes (which were mostly shot in live-action with filmmakers using minimal CGI) are absolutely superb, chiefly those in the last act, where the action hones in on the day-long race at 1966’s Le Mans, and Carroll and Ken are forced to deal with a slew of unexpected obstacles, including a car door that won’t close, heavy rain, and slippery tarmac. Similarly, the polished cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, Walk the Line (2005), and the pulsating music by Marco Beltrami, I, Robot (2004), and Buck Sanders, The Hurt Locker (2008), pass the checkered flag as winners, the latter standing as my favorite score of 2019!
If there are any negatives to speak of, it’s that the film sometimes sticks too closely to sports-drama clichés; this, however, is counterbalanced by the odd way that the race finished back in the day, which has been well-handled here. Irrespective, Ford v Ferrari is a crowd-pleasing triumph, a classic Hollywood film bolstered by outstanding ‘movie star’ performances, telling an incredible story of two racing pioneers whose names should be more prominent than they actually are. I urge you to jump into the driver’s seat for this one, folks — it’s an immensely satisfying trip that rarely slows down for a pit-stop. Stick back and let Shelby and Miles take you on a ride you won’t soon forget.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie