James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is a red-blooded American movie, a celebration of a man’s drive to pursue his passion with everything he’s got, a lamentation on the corporate world’s determination to break the spirit of the individual, and the satisfaction in knowing you can do what they tell you you can’t. That one of its two lead characters is an Englishman underscores how universal these themes are, how we’ve all got the same grit deep down. That it’s such a fabulously made and acted film is that much more rewarding.
In 1963, the Ford Motor Company is declining. Ford executive Lee Iacocca suggests they need to appeal to the younger generation in the way Ferrari – also in decline – does. When a buyout of Ferrari doesn’t work, Ford decides to try to beat Ferrari in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s premier race, and hires former racecar driver Carroll Shelby to design the car that will make it happen. Shelby recruits irritable fellow racer Ken Miles to help, and to be his driver. But the biggest obstacle to their success may not be Ferrari, but Ford itself.
Ford v Ferrari makes no bones about being a manly movie. The first scene shows Shelby getting back in his car after literally catching on fire to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959. The scene ends, however, in showing the ramifications of living life on your own terms, as a doctor informs Shelby that all that racing has weakened his heart to the point where he has to take pills to live, and he can never race again. Freedom isn’t free, as two guys from Colorado once said, and Shelby is forced to compromise for the next phase of his life, building and selling cars instead of racing them. Miles, on the other hand, lives up to his nickname. He gives no care to anyone else’s rules, and he refuses to make nice with people he’d rather just curse out and send on their way. But, as with Shelby, life catches up with Miles, here in the form of his responsibilities to his family. Unlike single Shelby, Miles has a wife and son, and as much as he wants to race, he has the IRS breathing down his neck and needs to find more stable work to support them.
Shelby and Miles see themselves in each other, and while Miles’ resistance to diplomacy initially irks Shelby, he’s actually jealous. Here’s a guy who can do the things Shelby no longer can, and his freedom is something Shelby fears he’ll never have again. Conversely, Shelby has his life together in a way Miles can’t seem to manage; Miles can’t get out of his own way long enough to keep a customer at his garage, but amiable Shelby can sell anybody anything. Underneath both, though, is the drive to drive, the passion for the thing they both love. Together, they face physics, tradition, and a corporate world more concerned with petty ego trips than accomplishing anything (Ford v Ferrari relishes giving a hefty middle finger to useless suits who lord themselves over the talent – you have to wonder if James Mangold and/or the screenwriters are exorcising some demons with this movie), and through a friendship that reaches through the screen and grabs your heart, they seize the chance to be exactly what they want to be.
Both of these characters are perfectly played by two of our finest actors. Matt Damon’s affable charm has never been put to better use than in Ford v Ferrari. He makes Shelby someone you instantly root for, someone you’d happily put off dinner to take a ride with, and someone you can believe is capable of convincing a stubborn CEO to give him the keys to the Ford kingdom. Christian Bale once again transforms himself for a role, hunched over and walking with a gangly gait to convey Miles’ time spent either working under or driving cars; his body is built for nothing else, just like his soul, and while Shelby can pass for something else, Miles never can. They aren’t simplistic character types, though; Shelby can get as tough as Miles when he needs to, and as gruff as Miles can be on the racetrack, he’s loving and tender with his wife and son, never getting angry or nasty with either of them and going out of his way to spend time with them. I don’t know how much recognition they’ll receive, but these are two excellent performances.
They’re aided by director James Mangold, who knows exactly how to film each of his leads. Matt Damon always looks like the very picture of a movie star, with clean-cut good looks and stylish clothes; he even wears a cowboy hat to drive home the Americana he embodies. Christian Bale is typically covered in grease and grime, wearing the coveralls of a mechanic till it’s time to suit up for a race. Speaking of which, the racing scenes are expertly shot, maintaining a propulsive pace while never becoming confusing. The cars look sexy and cool (and this is coming from someone who isn’t interested in cars until James Bond uses one to fire missiles at enemy agents), and when Ford v Ferrari ends, you wish you could hop into one and tear down the road. Marco Beltrami (a favorite of mine) scores the races with exciting action-style music, and adds some nice touches to the quieter scenes, like using some Spaghetti Westernish twangs when the Ferrari people are on screen.
The supporting cast is good, but mostly nothing spectacular. Jon Bernthal plays Lee Iacocca, and while it’s always nice to see him, it’s a nothing role that anyone could have played. Josh Lucas is the perfect corporate creep, and every time he shows up, you want to choke him. Tracy Lettis plays the insecure Henry Ford II with the right amount of false bluster, a man standing on the shoulders of his betters, be it his visionary father, the factory workers who build his cars, or Shelby and Miles. Ray McKinnon was an inspired bit of casting, feeling more authentic than perhaps anyone else in Ford v Ferrari as Phil Remington, Shelby’s second-in-command. Caitriona Balfe portrays Miles’ wife, Mollie, and she’s very good, but the character is frustratingly inconsistent. For much of the movie, she’s very supportive of Miles, wanting him to keep at his racing lest he lose a piece of himself (a welcome relief from the typical braying harpy desperate to keep her man from being happy that lazy screenwriters can’t stop using); there is one scene, however, where she pulls a complete reversal, and it feels out of place with the woman with which we were presented. In isolation, the scene is great, but it should have been rewritten a bit so it fit more with Mollie’s characterization.
Ford v Ferrari is an engaging and soulful movie about our need to live our passions, no matter the cost. Like the cars on the racetrack, it’s built just right, with excellent acting from the two leads and beautiful filmmaking from James Mangold. The two-and-a-half hours fly by like Ken Miles behind the wheel, and you’ll walk out of the theater feeling like you can do anything.