Cast: Matt Damon (Caroll Shelby), Christian Bale (Ken Miles), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), Tracy Letts (Henry Ford II), Caitriona Balfe (Mollie Miles), Noah Jupe (Peter Miles), Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe), Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington)
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael
Editor: Michael McCusker
Original Music Composer: Marco Beltrami
Genre: Sports, Action, Drama
Rating: PG-13 for some language and peril.
Run Time: 152 minutes
Ford v Ferrari tells the story of how the Ford Motor Company beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France in 1966. Directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan) and written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterwort, and Jason Keller, the film is a competent sports drama that mixes high-octane vehicular action, charismatic performances, and strong human interest elements to appeal to gearheads, Googlers of things like “how to change car oil,” and everyone in between. As someone who falls into the middle category, I enjoyed Ford v Ferrari, even if it hit some speed bumps along the way.
Ford v Ferrari opens with Matt Damon’s Caroll Shelby rhapsodizing about hitting 7000RPM, the epiphanic speed at which “only one question matters: who are you?” Shelby is a former champion racer forced into retirement by deteriorating heart health; he now works in car sales with a side gig in automotive design. Shelby also manages a few racers, such as Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a playfully loudmouth brit with talent behind the wheel but barely-working brakes on speaking his mind. The impulsive Miles disses importunate customers at his repair shop and chucks a wrench at his own windshield when Shelby advises him to keep a cooler head. That Shelby frames Miles’s wrench as a keepsake says much about their frayed but functional and mutually respectful relationship.
Meanwhile in Detroit, a blustery Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) pauses production at his automobile assembly plant to swagger across the scaffolding, scold his audience of factory hands, marketing creatives, and corporate executives about the wayward direction the Ford legacy is heading, and demand new ideas that will put the company back on course. Enter Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a young and ambitious suit with an answer to Ford’s woes: buy their bankrupt, Italian competitor of the film’s title and break into the international racing scene. Iacocca tries to broker the deal with Enzo Ferrari, but Ferrari takes advantage of Ford’s offer to up his company’s market value. Ferrari sells to Fiat, rejects the Americans’ offer, and rubs salt into the wound with some acerbic remarks that hurt Henry “The Deuce” Ford’s ego. Ford II green lights an all-out war on Ferrari in retaliation, where victory means nothing short of upsetting Ferrari’s five-year winning streak at the 24-Hours of Les Mans by becoming the first American car manufacturer to place first at the event.
Ford v Ferrari portrays the Ford company not as the monolithic protagonist of the film, but as a composite of competing interests. While the film foregrounds two giants in the auto industry vying for dominance, it also examines the struggle for control between Shelby and Miles on one side and Ford II and his right-hand man, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), on the other. Shelby is persuaded to aid Ford’s aspirations to racing readiness with an offer of a blank check to design a race car and put together a team that will get the job done at Les Man. In turn, Shelby convinces Miles to be his lead driver by tapping into Miles’s passion for auto racing as well as giving him the financial means to lift his family out of dire financial straits. But Beebe, a smarmy company man whose belief in Ford’s corporate ethos borders on ideological, mistrusts Miles’s “beatnik” presentation and tries at every turn to oust and replace him with a “Ford man.” This internal jousting between outsiders and insiders, working hands and powerful men with money invests the audience in the outcome and stakes of the two major races that wrap up the film, and lends a refreshing quality to the racing scenes themselves as Miles outmaneuvers his rival drivers on the track and Shelby counters Beebe’s attempts at sabotage from the spectator stands.
What will fill seats at showings of Ford v Ferrari, of course, is the promise of edge-of-your-seat racing action, and on this note, the film delivers at high velocity. The shots and sounds of cars vroom-ing and zooming past each other at top speed is exhilarating, and the action is easy to follow. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. It becomes quite literally a theatrical experience if you see it with Dolby sound design; the roar of the engines vibrates across your seat as if you are riding shotgun with the drivers. To be sure, the film is not bereft of CGI. The digital doctoring is particularly evident in some car crashes or in the background, fleshing out stadiums with cheering attendees. While the effects are less obtrusive in night scenes and are high-quality overall, they did interrupt my immersion in the film as I sought to figure out which shots were entirely practical and which had been enhanced in post-production.
There are other bothersome things to note about Ford v Ferrari that may pull viewers out of the film’s spectacle. Structurally, Ford v Ferrari is formulaic. It hits all of the beats you would expect from a movie about racing and does little to upend convention, resulting in a predictable narrative that can drag in-between the adrenaline rush of the racing scenes. Even the places where the film does try to innovate feel shallow, such as the character of Ken Miles’s wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe). Contrary to the stereotypical wife who nags her husband about doing the dangerous thing he lives to do, Mollie supports and encourages Ken’s passion for racing. However, where one cliché is written out, another is written in, as one excruciatingly ridiculous scene has Mollie whining, crying, and driving recklessly to scare Ken into admitting to her that he does, in fact, like to drive cars very fast. When Ken adds the detail that he has been earning $200 a day working with Shelby for Ford, Mollie is overjoyed, though it is unclear at which bit of news: that Ken can tell the truth or that Ken can earn money.
On the topic of driving recklessly, there are also a handful of scenes of Shelby peeling out of parking spaces and blasting off down residential streets, nearly missing other cars backing out of driveways and kids playing on the sidewalk. His poor road etiquette is played off as his quest to recover the good ol’ days of his racing career, and in conjunction with his monologue on 7000RPM that opens and closes Ford v Ferrari, the film seems to romanticize such behavior. Neither Mollie or Shelby face any consequences for driving as carelessly as they do. To my mind, this draws attention to the film’s all-white cast and puts it in conversation with other recent films like The Hate You Give, Monsters and Men, and the upcoming Queen and Slim that look at or revolve around the experience and consequences of driving while black. Ford v Ferrari is set in 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Right Act and with the Civil Rights Movement still in full swing. It is easy to forget this context in the sterilized world the film presents.
But Ford v Ferrari is not trying to comment profoundly on social issues or push the boundaries of filmmaking. It is a movie about two mavericks and the tricks they pull off to etch the name of the company that pays them into the annals of history. It is fun and exciting, with quippy dialogue and some humorous scenes involving grown men rough-housing in full view of their gawking neighbors or weeping cathartically at the beauty of driving so fast their peripheral vision bends into the slipstream. There is some emotional heft to the film, and some intelligence to its framing of two classes competing under the banner of American capitalism and ultimately working in concert to achieve a goal. The outcome of this class-struggle-turned-arranged-marriage may look like either a happy ending or a corporate nightmare, and though your mileage may vary depending on your vantage, you will probably enjoy the ride there.