Ford v Ferrari’s title says it all—literally. That’s the plot. You have to admire the simplicity of it, like a placeholder that somehow stuck around through each stage of edits until release and director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) said, “Oh, did anyone think of something better?… Screw it, let’s just keep it.” This movie could have easily been called “7,000 rpm,” but “Ford v Ferrari” better matches the film’s essence: old school, straight-forward, and relatively unimaginative, but captivating nonetheless.
Based on events from the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, Ford v Ferrari looks back at when the two companies went bumper-to-bumper and Ford took home the trophy for the first and only time in history. Leading the film are Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, the retired driver who designed the GT40—Ford’s first race car—and Christian Bale as Kenneth Miles, the man who drove it to victory. While the movie dedicates its third act to the race itself, it builds up to the big day by way of any other sports drama, following the assembly of its team, the training and preparation process, and the relationship between its protagonists.
Oddly enough, I found the corporate backstory of Ford v Ferrari more interesting than any scene on the race track. In 1963, the bellowing Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts of The Big Short and Lady Bird) is struggling to fill his father’s enormous shoes and reluctant to adapt to a new post-war customer base he just doesn’t understand. In order to spice up the company’s vanilla image, Ford VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests Ford buy out the sexiest automotive company on the market: Ferrari. But when Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) scoffs at their offer and sends Iacocca home with a barrage of highly personal insults directed at Mr. Ford, Ford declares war and demands Shelby build a car that will beat Ferrari at Le Mans.
While Damon and Bale deliver top-notch performances, Letts and Girone manage to craft a fascinating dynamic as clashing titans without even speaking to one another. In just a few scenes, the film clearly shows who these men are—highlighting Ford’s insecurity about following his father’s legacy, which Ferrari weaponizes—and what their companies represent, with Ford prioritizing reliability, stability, and familiarity, and Ferrari as an emblem of elegance and luxury. Both men dominate every room they occupy but are each their own special kind of intimidating.
If writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller were able to give these automotive mammoths such depth in two hours, I can’t understand why their characterization of Shelby and Miles came up short. While both men have enough charisma to fuel ten GT40s and are highly convincing as best frenemies, I still have little to no idea what defines them (and “cars” is not an acceptable answer). This is ironic, considering Shelby’s clichéd opening and closing voiceover states that the “only question that matters” in life is “Who are you?” Sure, Miles is hot-headed and has a real problem with authority, and Shelby… really misses racing, I guess. At least we see a fair amount of Miles’ family life, with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe) playing significant roles, but besides that, the film lazily points to a photo of Miles in the war and throws in a flashback of Shelby’s involuntary retirement. We end up with more personality than character, and Damon and Bale have to fill in the script’s blanks.
Despite this flaw, the film revs through its runtime quite effortlessly. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael keeps it glossy, and editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland keep it tight. Snappy montages at the Ford and Ferrari headquarters are propelled forward by Marco Beltrami’s wonderful soundtrack, whose bumping bass will satisfy your eardrums like the thud of a sportscar door. And, while the final act is predictable, with Ford exec Leo Beebe (it’s good to see you again, Josh Lucas!) serving a pretty basic antagonistic purpose, the race scenes are spectacular. Anyone who can get me to care about a sports movie deserves a gold star, and Mangold certainly had me on the edge of my seat.
I have no doubt this film will be a crowd-pleaser, but will it get a victory lap at the Oscars? If something as saccharine as Green Book can do it, who knows—but only time will tell. In terms of Ford v Ferrari’s long-term future, I think back to Ron Howard’s Rush, the last race car movie I saw in theaters. It was a solid film—well-received with some standout performances that shot Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl further into stardom—but can I remember anything specific about its plot or style, or any impact it made in film culture? Not really. I suspect Ford v Ferrari will go down the same road, eventually disappearing into the distance… but for now, it’s one hell of a ride.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Mangold doesn’t reinvent the wheel with Ford v Ferrari, but he doesn’t have to. This is a good old-fashioned racing film with an added layer of buff and polish that will entertain gearheads, dads, and people who know absolutely nothing about cars. Maybe you’re like me, more fascinated by the Mad Men side of things, like the struggle between corporate authority and creative vision—I’d pay to see the version of this film called “Suits v Artists.” No matter what you’re into, I say take this one for a spin.