***1/2 out of ****
(for language and peril)
Released: November 15, 2019
Runtime: 152 minutes
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Ray McKinnon
A fast and furious true story writ large, Ford v Ferrari is meticulously made on a grand Hollywood canvas. There’s nothing small here, not the least of which performances that play it big even in close-up.
It’s all fueled by an explosive sound mix, one worth the mark up of a premium IMAX or Dolby Atmos audio experience. The visuals match, too, displaying a fluidity and grace that elevates this racing world’s mechanized grit.
Yes, writer/director James Mangold’s takes a broad dramatic license that can get melodramatically preposterous at times, particularly given the enormous egos of these alpha males, but more often than not (and especially when it counts) that full throttle turbo is exactly the gear this story needs to accelerate.
The title, however, is a bit deceptive, though accurate. What sounds like a biopic about the two automotive giants squaring off against each other is actually about neither. Matt Damon and Christian Bale star, but not as the titular namesakes; rather, they play two racing icons of the mid-20th Century, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles (respectively).
These men teamed up to help pit the American titan of assembly line efficiency (a.k.a. mediocrity) against the most revered auto engineers in the world, all on the grandest stage possible: the rigorous Le Mans Grand Prix.
By the 1960s, Ferrari was producing the coolest sports cars on the planet; they were the standard bearer for racing excellence. Ford, by comparison, couldn’t even keep up with generational shifts in the marketplace, let alone compete with the world’s sleekest, fastest designs.
To change that perception, up-and-coming Ford executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinced the stodgy Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to reinvigorate his father’s fading brand by hiring Shelby and Miles to design and race a Ford that could match Ferrari’s best, a notion deemed absurd on its face.
It’s with such notions that pioneering begins, and Shelby and Miles were destined for the moment.
The story unfolds in three arenas – Shelby’s design hub, Miles’ family, and Ford’s corporate culture – and they’re are all on a collision course with the racetrack. Director Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) turns Ford v Ferrari into a “Mad Men of Motor Sports”, driven by adrenaline and machismo rather than Don Draper’s existential ennui. There’s a lot of swagger here, exemplified in visceral aesthetics and a jazzy, jaunty period score that ramps up the musical RPMs when the rubber literally meets the road.
Damon’s Shelby is level-headed but a fighter, managing the volatile Ken Miles against the risk-averse Henry Ford II so that neither person sabotages the mission. As Miles, Bale is a force of hot-tempered bravado that also shifts to loving father/husband and a cool-as-McQueen driver, all credibly. Letts plays Ford II with a simmering, subconscious intensity that emerges in the face of conservative impulses, occasionally leading to emotions that take him by surprise. It’s a great supporting showcase.
The family scenes serve as a tender counter to everything else, adding poignant sentiment to an otherwise testosterone-laden thrill ride, not only between Ken and his wife Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe, who’s superb) but also with his son Peter (Noah Jupe, A Quiet Place). These relationships give Ken’s personal ambitions a shared, meaningful purpose, and stakes more substantial than pride.
Ford v Ferrari has been dubbed the perfect Dad Movie, and it is, but it revels in an audacity that gives it mass appeal. Plus, it’s a worthy tribute to all the pioneers everywhere who dared to dream, took the risks, and pushed the limits – eventually going past those limits to where no one has gone before (or, in some cases, since).
Sure, this may be a formula script for the Formula One world – complete with cliché lines like “Wait for it…wait for it…now” (used more than once) or thin antagonist archetypes like Josh Lucas’s Ford marketing exec, a tool who’s more annoying than formidable – but it’s all perfectly calibrated.
Besides, as Shelby and Miles proved, sometimes a Ford firing on all cylinders is better than even the sleekest Ferrari.