While car racing movies aren’t exactly a staple of American cinema, they’ve certainly kept surfacing over the years, and have been varied in style and quite popular. The most recent was Ron Howard’s “Rush,” but a partial chronological list of the canon of titles includes “Grand Prix,” “Spinout” (yup, Elvis!), “Le Mans,” “The Cannonball Run,” “Days of Thunder,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and “Speed Racer.”
You may have seen some or all of those, depending on your interest in hotshot drivers going round and round on tracks, but “Ford v Ferrari” elevates things to a different level. Although it features sequences from a number of high-profile international races, culminating in the 1966 Le Mans - one for the record books - and director James Mangold (“Logan,” “Walk the Line”) puts viewers right inside the speeding cars, often giving them a nail-biting driver’s eye view, this is far from being a movie just about racing. It’s also, in equal measures, about friendship, love of family, corporate competition and much more.
But first, a suggestion: If you don’t know the story of how automobile giants Ford and Ferrari tried to best each other in the racing game in the mid-1960s, and if you’re not familiar with a couple of major players in that story - retired driver and future iconic car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and skilled and fearless driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) - you could check all of it out on Google. But don’t do it! If you do, you’ll deprive yourself of the excitement and heartbreak and unexpected story directions in the film.
If it’s thrills and spills you crave, there’s plenty of it. It opens in 1959, when Shelby was still racing, but soon moved into designing and building cars when a heart condition derailed him. Dates aren’t specified a lot, but sometime after that, British driver Miles was trying to eke out a living by running a small repair business. At the same time, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decided to bring Ford into the racing game, and set his eyes on building a car that could beat perennial winner Ferrari on the Le Mans track.
Grouchy, demanding Ford II eventually met up with talented, optimistic Shelby, who brought hot-tempered Miles - the best driver he knew - into the equation. Other players of note here are Ford marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Ford II right-hand man - and the closest thing this film has to a villain - Lee Beebe (Josh Lucas). Of equal importance in getting to know Miles are the presence of his loving and worried wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his adoring son Peter (Noah Jupe).
It doesn’t take long to realize that Damon is giving a terrific performance here, from his line delivery to his method of eye contact to the way he chews gum. And soon after that, it’s clear that Bale’s performance is going to either match or better Damon’s. And Bale isn’t even chewing gum!
This is a film about people’s dreams. Henry Ford II is looking for dominance in his business. Carroll Shelby needs to remain a part of the racing world. Ken Miles wants to keep driving and at the same time provide for his family. It’s also about the close friendship that formed between Shelby and Miles and how their working relationship was maintained through their shared belief: “You do your thing and I’ll do my thing.” It was their loyalty to each other that kept them going, even when corporate backstabbing, committed behind backs and in hushed tones, regularly threatened to get in the way.
Mangold and his scriptwriters take their time getting their story told, but they load it up with moving drama, they pepper it with moments of humor, and they supercharge it with fantastic racing scenes. It’s both a triumph of the spirit and a dream the impossible dream movie. Emotions run high among the characters on the screen, and they will do the same in audiences. You really don’t have to be a racing fan to get into the film. Everything that needs to be explained is explained, and all of it is massively entertaining.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Ford v Ferrari’
Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller; directed by James Mangold
With Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Noah Jupe