It’s hard to imagine a movie called “Ford v Ferrari” working without stellar action on the racetrack, and director James Mangold’s recreation of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race delivers where it counts — in the driver’s seat. The rest of this old-school drama, which follows the efforts by the Ford Motor Company to beat Ferrari at the sport it had dominated for years, stays in a familiar lane. But with Matt Damon as hotshot automotive designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as the ramshackle driver Ken Miles, “Ford v Ferrari” .
Much of the movie’s surprisingly breezy 152 minutes revolve around the enterprising Shelby tinkering with the design for the Ford GT40, while no-nonsense Miles keeps jumping back into the driver’s seat. Employed by Ford to unseat the competition, the two men constantly come to blows with the company as they battle against unlikely odds to forge a new path to victory.
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Damon and Bale are such magnetic onscreen figures that it doesn’t take much to inject their various arguments, smarmy asides, and high-stakes bets with plenty of intrigue. They’re surrounded by a pileup of strategy sessions involving powerful men in boardrooms that help orient the story, but no amount of narrative padding can match the sheer energy of the climactic race.
Still, there’s some underlying appeal to the history of Ford’s ambition, and newcomers should have no trouble taking interest: From the opening POV of Shelby zipping across a narrow track late at night, “Ford v Ferrari” establishes the need for speed that attracts its two compulsive leads, and then maps out the circumstances that bring them together: Shelby’s heart problems have forced him out of the game, and into a behind-the-scenes role that leaves him uncertain of his next move.
Enter Henry Ford II (a gruff, scenery-chewing Tracy Letts), eager to keep his father’s company relevant for the boomer generation; when his marketing head Lee Iaococca (Jon Bernthal) suggests the company make a bid for motorsports by taking down Ferrari’s multi-year record, Ford makes an ill-conceived attempt to buy out the nimble Italian competitor. That goes hilariously awry: “Go back to your factory,” a cartoonish Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) scoffs, leaving a fuming Ford to decide he’ll have to punch back on the racetrack.
Enter Shelby, tasked with 90 days to construct a vehicle that can upstage Ferrari’s sturdy designs. It doesn’t take much for him to convince Miles, a grimy British mechanic who leads an unstable middle-class family life with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), to sign on to the challenge. When Ford’s team remains skeptical of the carefree Miles’ abilities behind the wheel, a committed Shelby tricks Ford himself into sitting in the driver’s seat of their newfangled vehicle to understand the delicacy of the maneuvering at hand. “Get Doris Day to drive if all you want to do is lose,” he says.
There’s plenty of fun in watching Shelby battle the clock in the face of a daunting engineering challenge, while doing his part to contain the combustible Miles from angering the boss. Bale and Damon look as though they can barely contain the joy of forging an odd-couple chemistry that finds them trading barbs and scheming in equal measures. (One standout moment finds them coming to blows outside Miles’ house, while the driver’s bemused wife sits down with a magazine and waits for them to fight it out.)
But when “Ford v Ferrari” eventually settles into a striking recreation of the 24-hour race, Mangold’s expert filmmaking really takes charge: With Marco Beltrami’s score injecting a jazzy energy to the proceedings, the cars zip and twirl and clash ad infinitum — sometimes even erupting into flames — as the competition dwindles, and nothing involving the broader drama at hand can keep up. Bale, wide-eyed and on the verge of psychotic rage behind the wheel, doesn’t need to say much beyond the occasional “Giddyap!” in closeup as the movie zips from one frantic angle to the next.
Ultimately, the race sages into the sort of sports-movie tropes one might expect, following those beats to satisfying effect. Once it gets there, however, it heads right into a rushed climax that underserves its characters and their obsession, reducing it to the sort of emotional shorthand that these kinds of stories have on autopilot. Before then, “Ford v Ferrari” excels at evoking the sheer thrill of the race — “a body moving through space and time,” as one character says — and it’s compelling enough in those moments to make the case that nothing beats the thrill of competition.
“Ford v Ferrari” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. 20th Century Fox releases it on November 15, 2019.