Not unlike Ron Howard’s 2013 Formula 1 racing biopic Rush, Ford V Ferrari once again shows how much more fun I have watching larger-than-life true stories of ambitious drivers in cinematic form. That’s not a knock on how committed these drivers and mechanics are to their craft or the many sports fans who admire them, but more a show of good faith in respecting the sport and those involved. Here’s a film properly fueled by terrific filmmaking and performances, along with the right kind of Americana. And it all flies across the track in no time flat.
Set during the 60s, following a failed attempt by Ford Motor Company vice president Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to buy Ferrari, which was met with insults thrown at CEO Henry Ford II (a terrific Tracy Letts), a new plan is formed. Ideas are turned toward building a Ford that could beat a Ferrari in the Le Mans endurance race. To do this, Iacocca recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), an automobile engineer and former racer, who, in turn, believes war veteran/professional race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) would be the best man to drive.
Director James Mangold has climbed into the driver seat and found the exact right approach to a biopic and sports film. There are clear heroes and villains, without portraying individuals in too shallow a manner. The stakes and circumstances are clear, rather than relying on too many technical details. Watching the various races and test drives are exhilarating. Even with mild tuning, a film like Ford v Ferrari can’t get much better to serve as high-quality entertainment.
A lot of the joy comes out of these personalities. The setup is intriguing enough, as it’s one of those moments in history where everything seemed to align perfectly for the sake of an eventual cinematic adaptation. However, Damon and Bale do terrific work thanks to the bond they have as friends who are not afraid to challenge each other.
Bale has the showier role, as Ken is a hothead with the skill to back it up. He’s not a bad guy at all though. Ken is a man who cares about what he puts his effort into. In this case, he has a passion for feeling out a car and knowing how to make it the best it can be. He’s also a family man with a wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe). Ken isn’t the dad who is away from his family at all times. No, he wants to involve them, to share in his joy. Bale is terrific here. He brings all of the energy you’d expect from the famously intense actor, channeling it into a man who never lost his sense of wonder to go along with his competitive spirit.
This comes as a counter to Damon’s Shelby. Here’s a subtler performance that’s just as effective. Shelby is a man who had to find control after letting anxiety get the better of him. He doesn’t race anymore, despite being one of the few American men at that point to win Le Mans. We learn less about Shelby’s home life, but there’s a lot to take in on his general demeanor. Between his relaxed facial expressions and the ability to properly wear a cowboy hat, the guy is confident without seeming like a jerk. He knows how to speak to Ford and the execs because he has a way with words.
It’s important watching Ken and Shelby rely on each other in different ways, even if it’s generally more Shelby going on trust that Ken is always the right driver for the job. The two get in arguments and even fight with one another, but the film makes it clear what they are after. It would almost be a detriment watching Josh Lucas as Ford exec Leo Beebe (likely an amalgamation of multiples characters) were the film not so successful in examining the obstacles getting in the way of the film’s two leads. By having opposing forces like Ferrari, the execs, and even Ford, at times, Ford v Ferrari allows the victories Ken and Shelby achieve feel all the sweeter.
On the racing front, there is some high-octane action on display, and it’s all terrific, riveting, and clear. Between the use of real vehicles and whatever cinematic trickery was on display to throw an audience back into the 1960s racing scene, it all looks, and (most importantly) sounds spectacular. Do I care about the Ferrari drivers somehow managing to glare at Ken, while they both drive at speeds exceeding 180 mph? No, but I do get a real thrill out of seeing the maneuvers these guys make to outrun each other, avoiding whatever catastrophe possibly awaits them down the road.
Whether the characters are on the racetrack, testing fields, or even zooming around a runway, there’s a high level of care at maximizing the excitement thanks to precision filmmaking. Between Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, and terrific work from the sound and visual effects crew, there are constant shifts in how to best show off the vehicles being pushed to their limits, keeping it all clear to the audience regarding how we can appropriately keep track of the racing events and status of the cars. Marco Beltrami’s lively and kinetic score is a great benefit as well.
Helping matters is the presence of just enough characters and locations to really build out the world of this film. In addition to Damon and Bale, you have great support from Letts, who has a couple of scenes to shine, showing the different ends of what it means to have the power he holds. Balfe’s role as Mollie, Ken’s wife, can feel a bit standard, but she’s still given the opportunity to show why these two are married, let alone react accordingly to how Ken behaves. Other essentials such as Ray McKinnon as a senior mechanic, Bernthal, Jupe, and even Lucas all work the way they should. Even Italian actor Remo Girone has a few moments to shine as Enzo Ferrari.
Whether on the track or in the shop, there’s plenty of care put into building up these characters and having them feel appropriate for the world of the film. Best of all, it’s fun. Ford v Ferrari has so much fun putting this story on display. From watching Ford strategize over how to handle Ferrari, to the understanding of how Ken acts around people, to the little ways Shelby works to put his side of the argument into a better position, this film is a blast. Plus, it handles it all without losing the emotional impact coming out of the results of these races, and what it means to the characters.
For a biopic relying on the star power and premise to sell to an audience, absent any popular IP, it’s great to see Fox (now part of Disney) putting out such a polished studio film. Ford v Ferrari presents an exciting way to delve into a bit of history, relaying its story through imagery speaking to how America has evolved as much as it goes through some of the same laps. It’s a fascinating look at what perseverance, ambition, and savvy can do for those with real talent. Most of all, it’s a great time at the movies, where even with a 152-minute runtime, there’s never a point where the film hits the brakes. Just buckle up and enjoy.