It is true that cars used to be more aesthetically pleasing than they are now, but equally true that they would kill you for even so much as thinking about getting behind the wheel. Ford v Ferrari, known internationally as Le Mans ’66, hearkens back to a golden age of engineering, when the most important thing an American man could do was make a car that could go for 24 hours without exploding to stick it to the Italians. It’s a simple concept and a simple film, but Ford v Ferrari brings such talent to bear that it’s never far off exhilaration.
It’s the mid-sixties, and baby boomers have money to burn on cars. Ford decides to boost its sales by making the fastest car in the world, one to beat Ferrari. To that end, Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, Netflix’s The Punisher) hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, Suburbicon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, Vice) to build a car to take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
The main reason that anything about Ford v Ferrari works is due to the sterling efforts of Bale, who eats every piece of scenery that is placed in his way. This portrayal of Miles, famous for his “courtesy on the race track”, may not necessarily be historically accurate, but Bale makes it outsize and ridiculous in a good way. The part, as written, is your traditional “bad boy who is good at his job”, but Bale oozes charisma in a way that he isn’t often allowed. Even when the movie makes absolutely no sense, as in a pivotal argument between Miles and his wife (Caitriona Balfe, TV’s Outlander) in a speeding car, Bale dominates his scenes and brings them in.
Damon, as the straight man, is more a part of the ensemble than Bale’s equal. He doesn’t mind playing second fiddle and he does consistently good work with Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II. Josh Lucas (Breakthrough) is so thoroughly loathsome as a Ford executive that Ford v Ferrari can’t help hammering in its themes of rugged individualism.
That’s the tug-of-war at the heart of the script that is never resolved. Written by English brothers Jez Butterworth (TV’s Britannia) and John-Henry Butterworth (Despite the Night), with credit to original screenwriter Jason Keller (Escape Plan), Ford v. Ferrari can’t reconcile the concepts of a man standing alone to achieve great things and ruling by committee. Miles is instrumental to Shelby’s plan, but because Ford doesn’t view him as a team player, we are to believe that teams are bad; we ignore the fact that Shelby has assembled his own crack team to get the GT-40 off the ground, which is essentially committee by another name. It comes down to men in suits versus men in grease stained overalls, but it’s an uneasy tension in the script – and the nation. Otherwise Ford v. Ferrari is light on overt displays of American pride, generally limiting itself to a single statement of “it’s not the first time Ford has gone to war in Europe”. It sounds dumb, it is dumb, Tracy Letts (TV’s Divorce) can’t quite sell it, but it’s confined to one scene so it can just be forgiven.
Outside of Bale, Ford v Ferrari excels in its driving scenes. Director James Mangold (Logan), in his first film not beating up Hugh Jackman in years, has a firm communication of speed. The cars are impressive to look at and, though we’re never in danger of motion sickness, we can briefly feel like the object moving through space that Damon’s narration describes. It’s not as transcendent as us and the road, but Mangold gets close to touching the sky. In a story formula so etched into stone that it’s incapable of surprising a viewer, Mangold and Bale rise above their material to make even the most dedicated pedestrian care about wheels in motion.
Ford v Ferrari is a movie that you know the entire contents of before the title card even comes up, but it is so well crafted in its construction line assembly that you can forgive it almost anything. With Bale at remarkable ease and Damon showing a hint of vulnerability, Ford v Ferrari is very definitely a product, but it’s one that gets the job done in style.
Ford v Ferrari opened in Australian cinemas on November 14, 2019.
Directed by: James Mangold.
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Catriona Balfe, John Bernal, Tracey Letts, Josh Lucas and Noah Jupe.