Ford v Ferrari, 2019.
Directed by James Mangold.
Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Scott Rapp, Josh Lucas, Ray McKinnon, Stefania Spampinato, Wyatt Nash, Wallace Langham, Dallas Chandler, Jonathan LaPaglia, and Rudolf Martin.
American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
You don’t need to know anything about cars to know that competition between a Ford and a Ferrari is a fairly uneven matchup. Likewise, working knowledge of automobiles is nonexistent to enjoying Ford v Ferrari. Director James Mangold’s (Logan, Walk the Line) retelling of the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans naturally comes with a sense of American pride given that Henry Ford II (a no-nonsense, corporate Tracy Letts booming his voice with every order given) wanted to get into the racing industry and build the fastest car in existence. He even tried to take advantage of Ferrari’s hemorrhaging funds for a buyout, only to have his outlandish proposal rejected and his identity insulted.
Mangled and the trifecta of screenwriters on hand wisely steer clear from patriotism, though, and for good reason. And that’s not to say that the film wastes a slimy performance from Tracy Letts; Ford v Ferrari puts its entire ensemble to good use (save for Caitriona Balfe’s Mollie Miles, who is basically operating under the one-dimensional supportive wife routine). Instead, the movie makes it a point to illustrate the divide between corporate politics, the brains behind the racecar design that can get the job done, and how even with all of that, it’s all for nothing if you’re unwilling to give yourself a slight public relations nightmare by letting the most capable driver for the job do his thing behind the wheel. In this situation, that driver happens to be British-born Ken Miles, as played by a Christian Bale channeling his well-documented onset confrontational behavior from Terminator: Salvation.
“Are you here to win and make your son proud or make an ass of yourself” (not a direct quote most likely but close enough) Matt Damon’s Carrol Shelby asks Ken before a local race, who is making a scene over his vehicle not meeting certain regulations and being disqualified. At one point, a wrench is thrown at another character’s face, and while it’s initially intended as a comedic purpose, that wrench has quite the symbolic arc in itself. Nevertheless, what makes the dynamic between these two fascinating from the beginning is a prologue showcasing the final days of Carrol Shelby as a racecar driver, diagnosed with a heart condition preventing him from partaking in such an adrenaline rush. Relegated to working on cars, he’s fully justified whenever he gets frustrated with a hotheaded crazy genius like Ken (Christian Bale adds to the unpredictable temper with heavy facial expressions that almost feel ripped from a cartoon) that freaks out over certain things rather than just appreciating his ability to get on a racecourse in the first place.
More endearing are their methods for hashing out issues with one another throughout the many ups and downs along the way of crafting a Ford capable of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Let’s just say there is a skirmish involving groceries that is played for laughs in the context of “boys will be boys” with well-meaning intentions. We may not know what the hell these people are talking about half the time when it comes to automobile jargon and what should be done to make the Ford faster, but their passion and desire for victory is palpable. Every time a corporate stooge stands in their way, and there are quite a few of them, it’s easy to anxiously await their comeuppance.
The set up is relatively straightforward and fairly conventional for a biopic, which is not a bad thing considering the acting is top-notch and the skill of the craftsmanship on display. Arguably more of an MVP than director James Mangold is cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (a regular collaborator with the filmmaker) who has the daunting task of not just capturing vehicles burning rubber at dizzying speeds and gorgeous racetracks, but the mass chaos that ensues the second the race starts. Forget the fact that 24 hours is already one hell of an extreme endurance test, Ken has problems right out of the gate with a door that won’t close as he is trying to drive. There is also a collision between other cars while all of this is happening. To say that all of this is rendered in dazzling capacity on the big screen would be an understatement; Ford v Ferrari looks good (every vehicle glistens with beauty and contains distinct features) and it sounds damn good. Pouring rain, blistering heat, the darkness of night, and more all stress the danger precarious conditions during the event. More importantly, it’s all put on screen with excellent spatial awareness and clarity.
Perhaps Ford v Ferrari doesn’t explore these characters as deep as it could and should, but it easily coasts by on its engaging underdog story premise. The real fancy work comes from the extended racing sequences, and by then the story has accomplished more than enough to have viewers chest-beating and cheering Ken onto victory. The film does go a bit too far across the finish line, awkwardly touching on six months later, but that’s better than wiping out. Let Ford v Ferrari be a lesson to corporate bigwigs everywhere; if you want results, trust those with hands-on experience and the proper qualifications. The same could be said for movies; if you want to make a good one, hire James Mangold. He’s always a safe bet.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com