3.5 out of 5 stars
A racing movie can be a hard sell for people who aren’t in to the sport. But “Ford v Ferrari” takes its subject and turns it into an underdog story with heroes who are easy to root for, that doesn’t get mired in technicalities.
Based on a true story, this film directed by James Mangold is centered around the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. But it opens a few years earlier, when a frustrated Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the current CEO of Ford Motor Company who’s struggling to live up to his grandfather’s name, demands new ideas from his workers. Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposes buying Ferrari—the champion at Le Mans for several years running—to allow Ford to get into racing, thus appealing to a younger demographic and boosting car sales. But Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) turns them down in the most insulting manner possible, prompting Ford to develop their own race car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. To do so, Ford enlists Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a car designer and former Le Mans champion who retired from racing due to a heart condition, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a race car driver who knows cars like no one else, but whose bad temper threatens his opportunity to drive professionally.
The friendship between Shelby and Miles is a driving point of the movie, and one that comes across nicely as the film progresses thanks to the chemistry between Damon and Bale. Damon’s Shelby is cool, collected, charismatic, and in charge, a contrast to Bale’s Miles, who is enthusiastic but hot-tempered and not prepared to follow the orders of the suits in charge. Bale gets the opportunity here to do a few things we don’t often get to see him do as an actor: be funny (albeit in a quirky sort of way), be a family man (he has some nice scenes with Caitriona Balfe, who plays his wife Mollie, and Noah Jupe, who plays his young son Peter), and use his own English accent. He’s a blast to watch, and the role serves as a reminder that he can do more than dark and gritty.
Also a blast to watch are the racing scenes, which are thrilling and stressful to behold, thanks to Mangold’s direction and the editing of these sequences. The camera often puts the audience in the driver’s seat, watching the action from Miles’ point of view, which makes you realize how scary and dangerous these races can be, as well as how much skill it takes to be able to handle a race car hurtling down a track at over 200 miles an hour—a skill I think a lot of us underestimate.
At just over two and a half hours, however, “Ford v Ferrari” is a long movie, one that seems too long at times. While the film’s ending is surprisingly unconventional for this sort of movie, it also feels like it drags the story out for an unnecessarily long time, showing us events that could have been summarized in title cards before the credits. The film also doesn’t see a lot of its characters’ stories through, and lacks focus at times. Ultimately, Miles ends up being the heart of the movie, but while he’s almost on equal footing in terms of screen time and importance, we really learn next to nothing about Shelby or his personal life, outside of the brief mention of his heart condition at the start of the film and his passion for driving. Characters like Iacocca are big players at the beginning of the movie but fade away in the second act. Balfe, who is a wonderful actress, gets some decent scenes in the first half of the film, but toward the end is relegated to the typical supportive wife role, given little to do outside of watch her husband worriedly. And while the title of the film is “Ford v Ferrari,” it often feels more like “Ford v Ford,” as the battle—at least for Shelby and Miles—seems less against Ferrari and more against the controlling executives at Ford—like slimy senior executive vice president Leo Beebee (Josh Lucas), who has it out for Miles.
But “Ford v Ferrari” is still a great underdog story because, despite all these forces working against them, Shelby and Miles get the job done, and don’t sacrifice their own ideals in the process. It’s an intriguing story that’s beautifully shot and acted. First and foremost, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and while it may occasionally prize entertainment value over substance, it’s one that mixes style and charm in a way that makes its flaws—like this viewer’s general disinterest in racing as a sport—very nearly irrelevant.
Runtime: 152 minutes. Rated PG-13.