“Ford v Ferrari” is the high-octane true story of events that took place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966. The film sets up a David v Goliath scenario where an American driving car brand (Ford) tries to dethrone the perennial champion Italian race car brand (Ferrari).
The movie opens at the 1959 Le Mans, where bleary-eyed Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) pushes through fatigue and rainy weather to win the famed European car race. Jump forward a few years to a boardroom meeting at the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants some new ideas to move the company forward. A member of the marketing team, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), comes up with a wild idea… a Ford race car.
Ford PR specialist, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), enlists the aid of Shelby and his team of engineers to build a prototype car for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari at Le Mans. Though designing and building the car proves to be a colossal effort (especially since they’re only given 90 days), an even greater challenge is getting everyone to agree on who should drive the car. Shelby wants his long-time friend, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), but the Ford team wants anyone but the abrasive, hotheaded speedster. The drama that ensues has just as many treacherous turns as the legendary racetrack.
What initially attracted me to this film, after seeing the trailer, was the winning combination of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Here are two A-list actors at the top of their game in perfectly-cast roles delivering pitch-perfect performances. Acting of this caliber is a joy to behold and screen chemistry this refined is a true rarity.
Fortunately, the great performances don’t end with Damon and Bale. The movie is chock-full of terrific supporting actors like Letts (“The Post”), Lucas (“Glory Road”) and Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”). Other memorable performances are turned in by Caitriona Balfe(“Outlander”) as Miles’ wife Mollie, Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) as Miles’ son Peter, and Ray McKinnon (“Fear the Walking Dead”) as Shelby’s reliable and wise assistant, Phil Remington.
Director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) strikes the perfect balance between character moments and action scenes, lest one or the other should drive away with the movie. Mangold captures gritty, organic performances from his actors. One of the most remarkable bits of acting is when Ford II breaks down after Shelby takes him on a test drive in the new race car. Letts masterfully modulates (gear shifts) his emotions to the point where we’re not quite sure if he’s laughing or crying. An unforgettable scene.
Although all of the movie’s race sequences are spectacular (like the unforgettable “brake fade” scene), the start of the Le Mans race is a ferocious, frenetic experience, especially the images shot from Miles’ POV, where cars spin out of control or shatter into mounds of debris right in front of him. Thanks to Mangold (and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael), the race scenes aren’t overly jarring or one big motion blur as seen in many action movies today. Also, effective is the way Mangold crosscuts action on the track to drama (or comedy) in the pit.
The movie perfectly captures the milieu of the 60s. From clothes, coifs and cars, to products (sodas in glass bottles) and advertisements (a giant billboard of the Coppertone girl, which has her diaper pulled down in the back by a naughty dog), the attention to historical detail in the film is remarkable.
Amazingly, “Ford v Ferrari” is a fairly clean and wholesome movie other than the typical foul language found in Hollywood film.
Other than a scene where Miles tosses a wrench that shatters a windshield, the only significant violence is when Miles and Shelby get into a fistfight. Although the race scenes feature several car crashes, no blood or gore is shown in those shots.
“Ford v Ferrari” is an entertaining biopic fueled by sure-handed directing and top-tier acting. Though not an overt “buddy movie,” Damon and Bale deliver stellar performances as loyal friends who have a need for speed.
“Ford v Ferrari” is a long film that never feels long thanks to its bracing drama and pulse-pounding action sequences. The movie should receive nods in many categories come awards season.
The most accurate description of the film comes from one of its most amusing lines… “Ford v Ferrari” is “finer than frog fur.”