Ford v Ferrari
2019, PG-13, 152 min. Directed by James Mangold. Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon, Remo Girone.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 15, 2019
An old-fashioned American can-do spirit drives this crowd-pleaser about the legendary 1966 showdown between two distinctly different automakers vying for the championship at the crown jewel of endurance races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ford v Ferrari waxes nostalgic for an authentic bygone excellence rather than some Trumped-up one, recalling a time when unsung heroes like Carroll Shelby (Damon) and Ken Miles (Bale) could make America great again if only briefly, in this particular instance on an ungraded, eight-mile Grand Prix course in the countryside of northern France. The headwear worn by these two mavericks pegs them as car-jockey cowboys: the Texas-twanged former race car driver and promoter Shelby sporting a black Stetson, the Brummie-accented mechanic and competition driver Miles in a rolled-up farmers' hat. While the movie has its share of racetrack thrills in keeping with a cinematic tradition that began with the silent classic Ben Hur, it’s the personal and professional friendship between Shelby and Miles – two diametrically different individuals bound by a love for fast cars – that gives the movie traction. It’s the rare movie that doesn’t trivialize a platonic male relationship with buddy film tropes.
The title of the movie pits an old-school car manufacturer that mass produces vehicles for the American Everyman against an elite European automobile company specializing in hand-built sports cars, suggesting a lopsided competition of off-the-rack versus haute couture. The real adversarial relationship here, however, is the one between the Ford Motor Company suits bankrolling the design and production of the high-performance Ford GT40 engineered to dethrone Ferrari at Le Mans and the two dedicated but independent-minded experts they hire to make it happen. The script glibly vilifies the business executives taking a gamble in venturing into unknown territory, depicting Henry Ford II (Letts, looking awkward most of the time) as a stone-faced, pompous prick concerned solely about the family name and his sycophantic Director of Special Vehicles, Leo Beebe (Lucas), as a company man pathologically eager to undermine Shelby and Miles’ autonomy. (Only Bernthal’s Lee Iacocca is seemingly spared.) The two camps understandably butted heads over control of the project and the race itself, but caricaturing one side of this clash of wills detracts from the movie’s affection for the underdog on the other side.
Damon switches on his movie-star wattage here, chewing gum and wisecracking in a role largely requiring good ol’ boy charm and resourcefulness, only hinting at the lost soul trying to regain his purpose after a successful career as a race car driver ends for health reasons. (Shelby was the first American to win the Le Mans competition in 1959.) More memorably, the chameleon Bale delivers yet another vivid characterization along the lines of his Oscar-winning performance as the broken ex-boxer Dicky in The Fighter, his portrayal here as the scrappy and sardonic Miles just as award-worthy. When barreling down the straightaway or maneuvering around opponents at dangerously high speed, Bale’s focused expression subtly communicates the character’s undeniable pleasure behind the wheel. But perhaps his most memorable moment in the movie comes when Miles gently explains the Zen of the “perfect lap” to Peter (Jupe), his adoring son, as they sit on the asphalt of a makeshift racetrack at the magic twilight hour. It says everything about Miles, both as a motorsport driver and a parent. In a decibel-heavy movie scored by the roar of engines, this especially quiet father and son interlude cuts through all of the noise.