Between its thrilling racing sequences and underlying commentary, Ford v Ferrari makes for an entertaining spin on the traditional sports biography.
On paper, a movie about the Ford company's efforts to defeat its rival Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans probably only sounds interesting to either racing enthusiasts and/or anyone who actually knows what a 24 Hours of Le Mans even is. Thankfully, the final film, Ford v Ferrari (which was titled Go Like Hell early on in development), transcends its biographical trappings to deliver an enjoyable viewing experience for gearheads and race-car novices alike. And with director James Mangold (of Walk the Line and Logan fame) calling the shots, the biopic is mostly successful in getting at the heart of what makes this story interesting - namely, the struggle between commercialism and creative integrity. Between its thrilling racing sequences and underlying commentary, Ford v Ferrari makes for an entertaining spin on the traditional sports biography.
Ford v Ferrari is set in motion when CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) - acting on the advice of his VP, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) - tries to buy Ferrari, only to be rebuffed by its founder, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who knows he's only after Ferrari's world-famous racing program. Incensed, Ford II directs his own racing division to build a car that will beat Ferrari at the next 24 Hours of Le Mans (an event Ferrari has won for the last several years) in 1966. In order to do that, Iacocca turns to the retired racing legend and automotive engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his own team, including his hot-headed race-car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Can Shelby and Miles do the impossible and emerge victorious in this battle of David vs. Goliath vs. Goliath?
At its core, the Ford v Ferrari script credited to Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) is part American corporate myth and part real-life story about a ragtag group of artists in their profession who're trying to stay true to their vision while working for a company that's far more concerned about public image and selling their products to the masses. Of the two, the latter element is more compelling than the former and gives the film a beating heart, even when it's all too apparent where the story is going next. Having spent much of his career directing within the Hollywood studio system, it's perhaps unsurprising that Mangold seems to really relate to Shelby's crew and their struggle to keep their own meddling bosses happy as they work around the clock to deliver what they believe is a solid product. And by zeroing in on their clash of egos with Ford's men, he's able to keep things engaging, in spite of the movie's clear-cut trajectory and occasionally patience-testing runtime.
It may stick firmly to the racetrack (sorry, these puns write themselves), but Ford v Ferrari knows what matters most are the people who come along for the journey. In this case, Damon and Bale have excellent chemistry as Shelby and Miles, and their dynamic (the former is very much the level-headed foil to his friend) gives the film much of its flavor, whether they're bonding over their shared passion for racing or coming to blows in what's typically a very funny fashion. Their personalities are well-complimented by those of Ford's business suits, with Letts and Bernthal doing excellent work as always and Josh Lucas bringing on the smarm as the Ford executive Leo Beebe (who proves to be the biggest thorn in Shelby and Miles' side). Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe are relegated to supporting roles as Miles' wife and son, yet their scenes with Bale offer a welcome glimpse at Miles' softer, family man persona.
But of course, the race-car sequences and recreation of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans are the primary attractions as much as anything else here, and (to its credit) Ford v Ferrari very much delivers the goods in this regard. Mangold and his DP Phedon Papamichael shoot these scenes with a steady hand, allowing viewers to actually see everything that's happening while still experiencing the sheer exhilaration that comes with being a body that's "moving through space and time" (as the film puts it). The movie's racing sequences combine practical stunt-driving with limited CGI, and the resulting spectacle is truly visceral in the way it captures the cacophony and exhaust-clogged environment of the race course. Ford v Ferrari never comes across as old-fashioned in these moments either, even releasing after highly-stylized true story racing dramas like Rush in recent years.
Between its (excessive?) running time and distinctly anti-franchise design, it feels like Ford v Ferrari might be Mangold's means of participating in his own David vs. Goliath vs. Goliath battle involving studios competing to release the next big crowd-pleaser at the box office (something that adds yet another layer of meta meaning to the whole film). Be that the case or not, he's all the same succeeded in delivering a very good sports biopic fueled by great acting and exciting car races. Perhaps even more impressively, he's made a movie about racing that has something to offer those who know little more (or care to know much more) about Ford and Ferrari other than they both sell cars. That alone is deserving of a victory lap.
Ford v Ferrari opens in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, November 14. It is 152 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some language and peril.
- Ford v. Ferrari (2019) release date: Nov 15, 2019