Everything you need to know about Ford v Ferrari is right there in the title. This crowd-pleasing and well-made movie about the Ford racing team’s quest to win the 24-hour Le Mans race follows just about every predictable beat you can imagine in a sports movie. But what sets it apart is the magnetic star presences of Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, the only previous American winner of Le Mans who manages the racing team, and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, his cocksure star driver. In an age where IPs increasingly dominate the strategies of major studios, Ford v Ferrari is a welcome reminder that star power still matters.
The “v” in the title is indicative of the movie’s entire tone as it is basically a series of adversarial relationships between alpha males trying to assert their authority over the other. At the top of it all is Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who finds himself humiliated when Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) not only spurns Ford’s proposed buyout of the bankrupt Ferrari but uses Ford as leverage for Fiat to come in to rescue Ferrari. For good measure Ferrari insults the mediocre nature of Ford cars and the intelligence of Ford II himself. In revenge and retaliation, Ford vows to build a car and racing team that will beat Ferrari at Le Mans, where Ferrari has dominated for years.
And so it falls upon retired racing legend Carroll Shelby (Damon) to manufacture a win for Ford in this corporate pissing-contest. With Ken Miles (Bale) as his test driver and a team of sports car engineers in tow, that is exactly what Shelby sets out to do. This is without a doubt the best segment of the movie as there is something highly satisfying in seeing experts doing their job competently. The task of building a machine capable not only of competing with Ferrari’s speed but also being able to last the grueling 24-hour race is a complex and daunting problem. It is thrilling simply to see Shelby, Miles, and company tackle that problem with intelligence, ingenuity, and bravery.
It is a shame then that the movie feels it needs to give us cartoonish villains to root against in order to maintain the tension. In just about every corner there are two-dimensional villain lurking around the corner who are only a level or two above twirling their mustaches ominously as they try and stop our protagonists from succeeding. The central conflict between Ford and Ferrari bears all the nuance of a cold war action movie: The Americans are depicted as scrappy underdogs looking to bring a revolution, their Italian counterparts are sneering and overconfident favorites who seemingly feel personally insulted to be breathing the same air as their Stateside competitors. Even within Ford itself, there is a conflict between the passionate racers of Shelby and Miles who do it for “love of the sport” and the corporate hacks (led by a scheming Josh Lucas who is just short of a mustache to twirl) who seem to care more about the company’s image than winning. The end result is a movie that has no problem getting the viewer invested in our heroes, but by employing the cheapest methods to do so.
The assured performances by Damon and Bale show that this artificial ratcheting up of tension is entirely unnecessary. Damon seamlessly slips into his casual charisma as Shelby, his smile only betraying the slightest bit of pain as his heart condition keeps him from being behind the wheel himself. And Bale meanwhile brings a quiet intensity and abrasiveness to his role as Miles, his raw competitiveness and cocksureness bubbling closer to the surface. The two bring out the best in each other, whether in working together to crush their opposition or when they clash against each other. Damon and Bale are so charismatic in their roles that there is a noticeable vacuum when either one isn’t onscreen.
Of the rest of the cast, only Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles manages to bring some nuance and female energy to this male-centric movie. She is still stuck in the thankless role of being a mere plot device as Miles’ wife, but she manages to avoid most of the cliches of that role most impressively in being a foil and important counter-viewpoint to her husband without being turned into an oppositional nag. The rest of the cast however suffers from the dual problems of being nothing more than cardboard cutouts of characters while simultaneously being in too much of the movie.
These flaws are minor in the larger scheme because Ford v Ferrari gets the fundamentals right in that it perfectly casts its leads (which we have already discussed) and it absolutely nails its racing sequences. The movie literally shifts into a larger gear anytime Shelby or Miles gets behind the wheel. The Le Mans race, the centerpiece of the movie, certainly lives up to the hype and manages to remain thrilling throughout its significant runtime. Ford v Ferrari certainly breaks no new ground and offers very few narrative surprises but it is also as good as advertised; a competently-made crowd-pleasing movie not based on any existing or aspiration cinematic universes that serves as a showcase for its stars to shine. There used to be a time when movies like this dominated our cineplexes; hopefully Ford v Ferrari‘s financial success inspires more such movies to follow in its wake.
Runtime: 2 hours 32 minutes
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon