Let’s get this out of the way from the jump: my knowledge of cars is limited to how to drive them and (very, very) basic maintenance of them. I don’t know much about engines and transmissions; I don’t care enough about make/model to know what’s best and what’s worst; and, generally, I find movies about them to be rather insufferable.
Having said that, ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ a story that aside from a couple of names means literally nothing to me, is one of the best and most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in 2019.
Christian Bale as Ken Miles and Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari.’ (Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)
In 1963, with Ford sales lagging far behind the competition, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) gives his staff an ultimatum – come up with a great idea to reinvigorate the company or lose your job. His vice president, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), comes up with a plan to reinvent the company’s image for the coming-of-age baby boomers by making faster, sexier cars. At the center of his plan is the purchase of the now-bankrupt Ferrari and its incredibly successful racing program.
When the deal falls through, and the company is insulted, Ford essentially signs a blank check for his executives to find the best engineers to build the best car, which is to be driven by the best drivers in order to stick it to Ferrari by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
That edict leads Iacocca to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former Le Mans winner who had made the transition from driver to designer. With his competitive fire still burning, Shelby comes on board and brings his talented, but temperamental friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) along to help build and drive the car.
Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari.’ (Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)
Biopics can be tricky in terms of balance, especially with something as nuanced as the science behind a racecar. Presumably, ‘Ford v Ferrari’ has a built-in audience with with race fans and car enthusiasts, so it would be foolish to not include a lot of accurate information and realistic action. But you’ve also got bankable (and expensive) leads with Damon and Bale, so there can’t be too much focus on cars to not draw beyond that audience.
But director James Mangold and the writing team of Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller did a marvelous job of balancing the story between the personal stories and backstories of the main characters, on-course race action, and the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded.
The film is also filled with interesting, unique characters that are brought to life by the likes of Damon, Bale and Bernthal. You have Shelby, the guy whose first career was taken from him, looking to fill a void. You have Miles, the guy who’s eternally in his own way trying to find a new path forward. And you have Iacocca, the ambitious young executive trying to carve out his own niche in the face of the status quo.
And as good as those three performances are, my two favorites come from smaller roles: Letts as Ford II, a man desperately trying to step out from the huge shadow of his grandfather, while trying not stray too far from what his family built; and Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe, the Ford executive tasked with heading up the racing department and reigning in Shelby and Miles. Both elicited a reaction (at least from me) every time they were on screen – the sure sign of a job well done.
Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II and Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari.’ (Photo Credit: Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)
I’d also be remiss in not giving credit to the music department for doing an amazing job in song selection – I was hooked the moment I heard the Sonics’ ‘Have Love, Will Travel’ early on. The music serves as a subtle, but important way to keep the narrative flowing.
Overall, ‘Ford v Ferrari’ is a big, polished, studio venture about a major event in a loud world that somehow feels (at least at times) like a little drama about two buddies and a car. Perfect balance.
★★★★1/2 of ★★★★★