In the 1950s and 60s, the Ferrari automotive teams dominated international car racing but had fallen on hard fiscal times. The long-planned merger of Enzo Ferrari’s dream with the monetary power of Ford Motors fell apart and a fierce rivalry on the racing circuit began for “Ford v Ferrari.”
I was a teenager during the 1960s when auto racing, its glamour, noise and spectacle was at its zenith, just the thing for a kid who loved cars. I could not afford one, but I loved them still. So, any reports and stories on pro racing and its drivers, mainly through auto publications like Motor Trend and Sports Car Graphic, I read with enthusiastic zeal. Remember, that was when there were just three TV networks (and the fledgling PBS) and nobody cared about televised auto racing. Boy, things have changed since my days as an innocent youth.
James Mangold helms this star studded biography of a rivalry between two corporate juggernauts – one, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), dominated the European racing circuit, especially the 24-Hours of Le Mans, with his hand-built race cars, for years. The other, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), heads one of the most powerful corporations in the world and takes on the task to defeat Ferrari on the race track. This rivalry provides the backdrop for the story of the two men – race car designer and builder, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and his top notch driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
While Shelby and Miles are the focus of “Ford v Ferrari,” how Mangold and his team of writers (Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) handle each man’s story is quite different. Carroll Shelby’s story aims more to the technical and political machinations of building a race car and competing on a world class level. Shelby is a man of conflicted principles as he has to compromise with the powers that be at Ford in order to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans. Ken Miles’s story is more that of a family with an extraordinary talent in a sport fraught with the danger of sudden death. These two very different lives come together in a spectacular way.
As an old-time fan of car racing, I had high expectations for the actual racing sequences – I use actor Steve McQueen starrer “Le Mans (1971)” and Ron Howard’s “Rush (2013)” as my benchmarks for racing action on screen. Director Mangold and his talented cast and crew capture the big climax, the 1966 24 Hour of LeMans race, that pits the corporate giant, FoMoCo, against the boutique brand, Ferrari. The action is tight, close and low as the cameras record the teeter-totter back and forth between the teams.
The cast, on every level, fully define their characters. Damon’s Shelby, who had to give up racing because of his heart, is focused on bringing his promise to Henry II - to defeat Ferrari - to fruition. Shelby’s story is about his two battles – bucking Ford’s corporate control over his mission and completing that mission.
Christian Bale, though, gets the more complex and oddly endearing character in Ken Miles. Ken is happily married to Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and dearly loves his son Peter (Noah Jupe). But, Ken, when it comes to car racing, has a single mind about his craft and will not compromise his principles or his integrity. This often caustic character has a hard time with authority – which brings in his mentor, Carroll – and the pair fulfills the dream.
“Ford v Ferrari works on every level, from its look into a time when car racing was special to the lives of it two protagonists. Damon and Bale work well together, often playing good cop/bad cop roles in getting their mutual job done – beating the famous Italian race car impresario. The filmmakers show, very well, both the rivalry of the two marques and the excitement and thrills of GT racing. I give it a B+.
Right around the time Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) had to quit car racing because of his elevated heart rate, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) was pitching Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) on grabbing the post-Boomer generation by sexing up their image. Iacocca thought they should develop a race car and go up against the legendary Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone, "Live by Night") at Le Mans and Shelby was the man to design the car in “Ford v Ferrari.”
Director James Mangold ("Cop Land”) has one of the most varied filmographies in Hollywood, jumping around genres from Indie character studies (“Heavy”) to romcoms (“Kate & Leopold”) to thrillers (“Identity”), Westerns (“3:10 to Yuma”) and Super Hero movies (“The Wolverine”), his last, “Logan,” a combination of the latter two. Now he takes on the car racing genre, but in his hands it’s not just all about the racetrack. Working from a script by brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth ("Edge of Tomorrow") and Jason Keller ("Escape Plan"), Mangold’s film could be seen as a metaphor for his own industry, Shelby a producer trying to protect his creative talent, engineer and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), from the big studio (Ford) holding the purse strings. It’s the old art v commerce tension.
It’s also about the deep friendship between Shelby and Miles, the more business-minded Shelby frequently frustrated by the unfiltered and rebellious Miles. Employing a Texas drawl, Damon balances manipulation with concession as he wrangles with Ford executives while trying to both rein in and support Miles. Using his own borderline cockney accent, Bale fashions a humorous rebel, an English WWII vet enjoying a flirtatious marriage to the supportive Mollie ('Outlander's' Caitriona Balfe, making her strongest big screen impression to date) and an adoring son in Peter (Noah Jupe, "Suburbicon"). Miles is unafraid to speak his mind and upon his first meeting with Ford V.P. Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) at the unveiling of Ford’s Mustang, he trashes the car, and Beebe holds a long grudge.
The racing scenes, in which competitors push their cars beyond their limits (6,000 rpm and more!), are excitingly shot and edited. One, in which Shelby gets Ford II behind his demand to put Miles in the driver seat by taking the man out for a spin, is hilarious, Letts almost literally turning green.
“Ford v Ferrari” succeeds on many levels. It’s another Mangold special, a movie that is at once a buddy movie, a romance, a family film and an anti-corporate racing movie. Above all it is entertaining as hell, a terrific film about men striving for perfection.
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