Most racing films tend to fall under the gaudy Fast and Furious genre. Ridiculous stunt driving, unbelievable characters taking part in even more outlandish stories. Those kinds of films do provide the “entertainment” element by shoving action down your throat but they miss the kind of context that could make the story transcend its genre. Ford v Ferrari is one of those incredibly rare movies that showcase the thrill of racing and present it with meaningful context and heart.
James Mangold has certainly come into his own as a filmmaker. After four years out of the director’s chair, he returned to helm the publicly and critically acclaimed Logan in 2017 before taking on this non-fiction, historical racing film. The challenge here went beyond just making the race action entertaining, Mangold had to provide a compelling human story for a broader audience because the average moviegoer is likely unfamiliar with the history. This is the story of Ford Motor Company’s unexpected rivalry with Ferrari during the 1960s and their quest to win one of the most prestigious events in racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There was a lot of expository ground to cover but it never felt like it was running long, even at two and a half hours, which is a testament to focused direction and a well-crafted script. We could see Mangold get a Best Director nod at year’s end.
I’m no race historian but films such as these always have a tendency to embellish. Despite taking some creative license, the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth alongside Jason Keller is fairly accurate. The dialogue is fantastic and focusing the narrative through real-life characters Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles was a smart choice because it allowed their on-screen friendship and their individual motivations to fuel the story…and it certainly didn’t hurt to have a couple of Oscar-winners in the driver’s seat.
Matt Damon was great and his level of consummate professionalism was a perfect fit for Shelby but there’s no question Christian Bale stole the show as Miles. It was just one of those roles where Bale is completely magnetic and you’re on his side right out of the gates. Miles just wants to race and there’s a certain underdog quality to the performance as he’s faced with a variety of hurdles despite his substantial skill behind the wheel. Additionally, Damon brought that much-needed “every-man” quality to the table which gave the audience something familiar to connect with as the foundation for the story is established. Shelby serves as the middle man between the giant industrial machine and the man at the bottom of the mountain so he’s essentially the narrator and that’s not a duty to be taken lightly. Damon isn’t without his standout moments either but both of their performances are sharpened when they are on screen together. There’s undeniable tension between their characters but you can clearly see the respect and admiration the two actors have for one another and the results speak for themselves. I fully expect Bale to lead the pack for Best Supporting Actor come awards season.
Ronna Kress cast a very strong supporting group around the two stars and the quality showed in the performances across the board. Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) was an important piece of this puzzle as Mollie Miles. She conveyed a significant amount of justified concern for her husband’s safety while still managing to be loving and supportive. It was the kind of role that should make filmmakers take notice. There were also good supporting roles from Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and the ever-punchable Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe…he just plays the loathsome, smarmy prick so damn well my hand just instinctively balls into a fist.
Performance artistry aside, this was still a racing movie and it would have been disappointing if the action didn’t live up to the art. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. François Audouy’s production design was fantastic and the visual presentation of the sport hit all the important marks. The sensation of speed was remarkable and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael gave a very comprehensive feel to the action. There were a lot of moving pieces, combining race footage and visual effects shots with close-up cameras inside the cars but the editing team of Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker, and Dirk Westervelt married the imagery beautifully. Despite being very different than watching a race live or on television, it still felt like a fulfilling experience.
I did see this movie in Dolby but it sounded incredible. The original music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders was grand and vigorous, injecting the right level and right kind of energy into the scenes…especially while on the track. Even the sound design was exceptional. It’s not often I point out how good a film sounds but the sound mixing and editing were exceptional. All of the elements of stimuli combined for some truly nipple-hardening moments throughout the film. The sound department should be looking at a couple of Oscar nods at the least.
It was a strange time for this story to finally be told on the silver screen. There is a great deal of focus on American ingenuity in the face of a foreign challenge and the individual motivations for both Shelby and Miles. Despite centering around Ford’s pursuits at Le Mans, it didn’t paint a flattering portrait of the company or its internal structure (which was portrayed much smaller on film) while making sure to highlight the high level of craftsmanship and care that went into each Ferrari. While much of this was surely dressed up to create drama for the film, there is a strong message about the value of individual interests in the face of corporate micromanagement. Having spent some time with my uncle at a few of the tracks depicted on screen, it gave me a little more appreciation for what it means to sit behind the wheel of one of those cars. Ford v Ferrari is very well made and one of the year’s five best films so far. I fully expect to see it compete for Best Picture.
Recommendation: Leave any preconceived notions at the door and go see this, in Dolby if possible. It’s a great combination of (semi-accurate) history, racing action, and personal investment so there’s really something for every casual moviegoer.