Synopsis: 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.
Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe
Director: James Mangold
Running Length: 152 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: With authors, historians, and filmmakers having greater access than ever before to archival materials for events throughout history, it isn’t long before we’ll have an easy way to bring up a certain important milestone that occurred and research it’s significance. In the meantime, we have to rely on those who seek to preserve these cultural touchstones and explore the work they do to bring that information to the general public. Maybe it’s an art exhibition of a painter that died before their time and was never known for their technique in their lifetime. Perhaps it’s a long-lost book of essays from a famous writer that was found in a safety deposit box of their former lover. Or it could be something as simple as a movie documenting the rivalry between two car companies seeking to win a world famous race and pushing each other to build better vehicles in the process.
That’s how I choose to look at Ford v Ferrari, the dandy new racing drama zooming into theaters this weekend. Sure, it looks like that late in the year release that feels like a perfect film for your dad to enjoy while you’re shopping for the holidays at the mall but it’s far more than a mere ‘Dad Film’ and you should consider riding shotgun for this one as well. If you do, you’re going to find a film gassed up and ready to go from the start, with A-list talent in the driver’s seat and a fine supporting cast of venerable characters actors admirably doing stellar work in the pit crew. Though I know over the years I’ve come across a number of them, the last racing movie I can remember seeing (and liking) in a theater was a whopping 28 years ago with the (still great!) Days of Thunder – so it was high time to get back behind the wheel and try out this model that had some history to go along with it.
As a barely casual Formula 1 viewer, the only races I had any familiarity with were the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 so learning about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that plays such a major role in this movie was a real eye opening experience. According to Wikipedia, it is “the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France. It is considered one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world and has been called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.” I had always thought cars went around the track for a while and eventually whoever had the best time after a certain amount of laps won. It totally blew by me that there was a strategy and skill involved in endurance racing, especially when you consider the length of time of Le Mans and how specifically the car has to be made to survive those conditions.
By 1963, the Ford Motor Company was in trouble. Business wasn’t great and their production line wasn’t appealing to a younger culture that were becoming more enamored with the European cars they were seeing in films. These foreign cars, driven by the likes of James Bond, were sleek and sexy, not boxy and chaste like the types Ford was churning out. Inspired by his Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) makes an offer to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari who had steadily been losing business after investing so much money into their countless efforts to win Le Mans. Hoping to claim a Le Mans victory for his company, Ford II or “The Deuce” as he was called behind his back, thought that by buying Ferrari he was guaranteeing himself a win. When Ferrari balked, The Deuce made it his mission to destroy Ferrari by gathering a team of his own and winning Le Mans as a way to get a kind of revenge against Ferrari.
At the time, the best man to go to about cars was designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) who had previously driven a car to a Le Mans victory in 1959. The brusque Texan knew the right people to gather together to get the job done but also knew the corporate red tape that would ultimately get in the way – yet he soldiered on, eventually bringing in unpredictable British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, American Hustle) to test the car and steer it to victory. Miles was known for his brilliant knowledge of cars and his talent behind the wheel, but also for his hotshot attitude and aversion to authority, a problem that comes into play when a ego-centric Ford company man (Josh Lucas, Thinner) gets promoted to oversee the racing team. Under his penny pinching corporate eye, Shelby and Miles collaborate on a revolutionary automobile though and field test it endlessly to prepare for the legendary race. The road to Le Mans is filled with potholes, though, and over the next years Shelby and Miles would have their professional relationship and friendship tested on multiple occasions as they navigated a company that wanted to win but with compromise and a leader who valued personal victory over loyalty.
Based on the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime was adapted by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) and Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) into a well-oiled screenplay that, while heavy on car talk, doesn’t leave us non-car people in the dust. In doing my research I’ve found that by and large Ford v Ferrari sticks fairly close to the events as they happened, taking few liberties with the real people that lived it. As always, a movie can’t concentrate on every member of the larger team that led to success and I think focusing on Shelby and Miles was a good idea, mostly because the roles are so different yet complement each other so nicely. Most agree that Shelby and Miles were key figures in Ford’s development of a racing car for the Le Mans race, though it’s well known it was a large team effort that wasn’t just accomplished by grease monkeys and the non-corporate type.
Director James Mangold (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) make the non-racing scenes look absolutely stunning, whether it be a conversation Miles is having with his son (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon, in another winning performance) or when The Deuce is throwing a tantrum in front of his executive staff. It’s the racing footage that’s truly, incredibly, awesome. Putting you right into the drivers seat without the shaking camera that often accompanies these views, whether we are looking in, out, or around the car Papamichael makes sure we know where we are and who we are following at all times. With several races to go through before Le Mans, it allows audiences time to get a rhythm for the racing before the big one that takes up a large part of the last hour of the movie. Having no knowledge of this event beforehand, I didn’t know the ultimate outcome of the Ford/Ferrari match-up and I’m so glad – it helped make the movie that much more enjoyable to be in some suspense as we near the finish line.
There’s already been a lot of talk about Ford v Ferrari around the performances of Damon and Bale, questioning if one actor should put himself in the running for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor. If we’re being fair, both are leading actors of the movie but I’d argue that Bale has the larger and more pivotal role…which is of course why many are saying he should campaign as Supporting Actor (??). Even so, it appears both actors are going for the leading category now and I worry that it will either leave both out of the nominations or allow Damon to get in instead of Bale. Nothing against Damon because he’s very good in this, I just responded more to what Bale was putting out onto the screen. I also greatly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Letts as the obnoxiously pompous son of Henry Ford. Wait for the scene where Damon’s character takes him on his first ride in a true racing car…it’s worth the price of admission. As the lone female in the film with any kind of significance (the film’s one true drawback), Caitriona Balfe (Now You See Me) is stuck with the Wife That Is Supportive Above All Else but makes it less saccharine than it could have been. If only the script had allowed her a few more dimensions, Balfe would surely have been up to the challenge.
Some movies are easy to skip in theaters and wait until they arrive for rent at home. This is not one of those movies. I’d advise to see this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system available. It can only enhance what is already a thrilling film experience, a history lesson brought to considerable life by a crackerjack team of professionals at the top of their game. I’ve had this one on my mind quite a lot over the past week and feel as if it’s one I’ll revisit sooner rather than later. Definitely worth your time to see it in theater.