To make a movie about auto racing, you have to have a good hook. While popular in general, the sport has so many splinter sects — NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, etc. — that no one fan is like another. All of that is to say that if the new film Ford v Ferrari is to succeed, it will be for other reasons than the very specific type of car racing that it showcases.
The biopic details the desire of car builder Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and the powers that be at Ford Motor Company to defeat Ferrari at the renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Ferrari had won the race six years in a row in the 1960s. Eager to showcase their cars, including the then-new Mustang, to young drivers, Ford set out to try to build the perfect race car.
But just because they had some of the best talent in the world didn’t mean that things went smoothly. Business politics, marketing, and the egos of all involved ensured that the construction of the car and who would actually drive it became a prolonged process. Chief among those egos are Shelby and Miles, who both have such confidence in each other’s abilities that they’re willing to push back against Ford executives and push the limit on the track.
Directed by James Mangold and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, the film is heavy on personalities but light on details. On the one hand, that is to be expected, as the larger beats of the story are somewhat predictable.
On the other, it would have been nice if the filmmakers had tried to bring the audience into the actual process of building the car. They allude to it every now and then, but usually cut straight to the chase, or race, as it were. Also, for a film that sets up two companies as antagonists in its title, there is very little information about Ferrari in the film.
Instead, the audience must make do with the intra-company quarreling at Ford, with people like Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) trying to assert their authority, and Shelby and Miles proceeding to disregard almost everything they request. The bullheadedness of all involved makes for many entertaining scenes as they compete to see who has the bigger … chassis.
Any racing movie worth its salt must have some great scenes in the cars, and Ford v Ferrari delivers some fairly intense moments thanks to a combination of directing, editing, and acting. Car racing, especially on a closed track, can get repetitive quickly, but Mangold and his team do a great job of varying shots, as well as cutting to off-track characters, to make each race feel kinetic and thrilling.
The film mostly sticks to business except when it comes to Miles, whose relationship with wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) is given a good amount of screen time. The performances of Bale, Balfe, and Jupe make those sequences fun and interesting, but the lack of other personal relationships in the film makes them seem somewhat unnecessary.
Both Damon and Bale are phenomenal in their respective roles. Damon’s ability to back-and-forth between lighter and more serious roles is not a talent that every actor possesses, and he is every bit the equal of Bale here. Bale, following up his complete transformation as Dick Cheney in Vice, goes the opposite direction for the skinny Miles. However, it’s not his physique that impresses, but rather his unique ability to fully inhabit whatever person he’s called upon to portray.
On a purely storytelling front, Ford v Ferrari could have been better, delving into more specifics for those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with the history. But the performances of the stacked cast and the intensity of the various racing scenes is more than enough to make up for that lack.