I wouldn’t call myself a fan of auto racing and I can’t really name a movie about racing that I have a lot of affection for. But it’s hard to skip over one with as much star power and early awards season buzz of “Ford v Ferrari”. Christian Bale, Matt Damon, eye-popping visuals, and Oscar predictions aplenty are some of the reasons I had to give it a go.
James Mangold directs this character-driven sports drama spawned from the rivalry between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari that ran through much of the 1960s. Their fierce competition reached its apex at the 1966 24-Hour Le Mans, an endurance race which Ferrari had won for six years straight. The Italian company’s dominance didn’t sit well with Ford who hires Texas race car designer Carroll Shelby (played by a spot-on Matt Damon) to build a blazing fast ride to dethrone their counterpart.
That’s the gist of the story which comes from the writing team of Jez Butterworth, his brother John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. Actually you could call it the framework the trio uses to explore the big personalities behind this remarkable feat. There is plenty of auto jabber and really cool race sequences. But ultimately it’s the human element that makes this movie work.
The bulk of that humanity comes through Ken Miles (Christian Bale). A professional race car driver, earnest family man, and a bit of a wild card, Ken struggles to put food on his family’s table and keep his garage out of the hands of the IRS. Predictably Bale gives a fabulous performance whether he’s under the hood, behind the wheel, or sharing quieter moments with his wife (a really good Caitriona Balfe) and adoring young son (Noah Jupe). The awards hype is justified.
Yet another good performance comes from Tracy Letts playing the surly Henry Ford II He’s the CEO of Ford who is anxious to get out of his father’s shadow and make a name for himself. That, along with some insulting jabs from the Ferrari owner Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), leads him to follow the suggestion of his VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and enter the international racing scene.
Ford hires Shelby who instantly wants Miles to be his driver. They set out to build their car but quickly discover their biggest obstacle isn’t faulty brakes or design flaws. It’s the Ford executives who are better versed in keeping up the company image than RPMs. This sets up the film’s biggest tension as two racing mavericks go up against the controlling corporate suits best embodied in the movie’s portrayal of Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
In terms of characters and characterization, this is the film’s one glaring misfire. It was interesting to read that the real Leo Beebe wasn’t the smarmy, opportunistic weasel we get here. I get dramatic license and all that. You never come to movies like this for pure, unwavering authenticity. But the the story’s portrayal doesn’t especially help the film. He feels like a stock movie character pulled right off the shelf. Nothing wrong with Lucas’ performance, but it’s a case where the nuances of the real Leo Beebe might have played better.
My only other quibble is with the film’s 150 minute running time. This may sound contradictory, but the movie never drags. Yet there were a couple of times when I became completely aware of its length. Despite that “Ford v Ferrari” is still a rousing racing drama that doesn’t shirk on the human element. Bale and Damon have a snappy chemistry, and the supporting cast is fantastic (I haven’t even mentioned the superb and always underappreciated Ray McKinnon). And of course, there are the exhilarating racing sequences. Best of all, no racing knowledge required. Just a love for stories rich with humanity and spirit.
VERDICT – 4 STARS