Ford v Ferrari
Director(s): James Mangold
Writer(s): Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild and Jack McMullen
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Nov 15, 2019 - Wide
There are a lot of “versus” in Ford v Ferrari besides the titular struggle. There’s man versus machine, driver versus track, passion versus corporate bureaucracy. Whichever struggle you focus on, you’re bound to be entertained by this movie.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former race car driver, who once won the grueling 24 hours of Le Mans race. Plagued by a heart condition that ended his career, Shelby is now designing performance cars and running a dealership with cash flow issues. The Ford Motor Company, on the other hand, is cranking out car after car under the stewardship of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) but facing a lack of excitement from a young generation with money. Marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) says the company’s fleet needs the sex appeal of the sporty artisans at Ferrari, whose cars constantly get the checkered flag. When Ford contracts Shelby’s team to make them a car that will win at Le Mans, Shelby turns to mercurial race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to help him try to achieve this feat. Perhaps the biggest battle isn’t between cars on the race course, but between the racing passion of Shelby and Miles against the stifling corporate suits at Ford.
Director James Mangold and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller pace the story so well that all the emotional beats have room between the race scenes. Miles isn’t just a one-dimensional racer and car-tuning savant. He’s a war hero and great husband and dad, loved by a supportive and strong-willed wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and adored by his inquisitive son, Peter (Noah Jupe). While Shelby must diplomatically play both sides of the equation, coddling the Ford execs while managing the team of drivers and designers, Miles has no balancing act to contend with. He’s a pure race and car man, a trait that puts him at odds with Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who serves as the movie’s de facto villain.
In a film about racing, it can be an easy trap to focus solely on the cars speeding around the track but Mangold avoids those filmmaking collisions. Don’t get me wrong, the director and his stunt, cinematography and effects teams have created some beautifully shot race scenes. Cars pass each other with inches to spare, handling hairpin turns in all types of weather, day and night. The audience is brought so close to the action that we can smell the rubber and gasoline and tense up as cars spin off the track. Like a driver who knows instinctively when to shift gears to get the best results, Mangold knows how to get optimum performance out of his actors.
Bale is a joy to watch as Ken Miles. He’s able to turn all his passion for cars into biting rebukes at the Ford execs, but then seamlessly dote on his son as he draws a map of Le Mans. He can display steely nerves on a 200 m.p.h. straightaway but then downshift to the rough-edged charm and playfulness he displays with Mollie. Bale doesn’t have all the fun though. While Damon’s Shelby must soothe the Ford suits, he knows when to turn on the Texas charm to make a sale, whether it’s a car to a customer or a concept to Henry Ford II. A showman to some, he’s also the ringleader to a merry band of mechanics and designers, including his right-hand man, Phil (Ray McKinnon), who can read his boss’ needs as well as he can read an engine.
The Miles family is given great strength by Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe. Balfe’s Mollie isn’t just some worrying wife on the sidelines. She’s an equal partner in the marriage, supporting Ken’s passion but making sure he knows the stakes and the risks the family puts up with too and letting him know when he’s he’s crossed a line. Jupe’s Peter, like Mollie, shows us a boy to whom his dad is a hero, but also acts as the audience’s surrogate, getting answers to some of the questions about racing that we probably have.
Tracy Letts plays the duality of Henry Ford II to perfection. He’s a man completely comfortable in his station in life, relishing in his money and power, You’re either him or you work for him. Yet beneath his arrogant veneer Letts gives you a glimpse of a man who is sometimes told, and always knows, that he is not the same man his grandfather was. (Of course, considering grandpa’s extremist views that inspired Hitler, that’s actually not a bad thing.) Jon Bernthal gives us a look at Lee Iacocca, the man who would insist Ford introduce some sex appeal to the car lineup and Bernthal plays him with a glint in his eye that displays his enjoyment at shaking up the staid corporate structure. Meanwhile, Josh Lucas’ Lee Beebe is so slick, so slimy, and so unctuous to Ford II that you wouldn’t be surprised if the audience hissed every time he appears onscreen. In a movie where we’re already rooting for Miles and Shelby, Beebe gives us a reason to root for them even more.
Mangold and his team give us amazing race sequences that demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible. They add in great performances that show us all levels of relationships both personal and corporate. It’s a winning combination.