We first meet Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon), one of the two central characters of James Mangold’s new biopic “Ford v Ferrari,” at the premature end of an illustrious racing career. After winning the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1959, a heart defect takes him out of the driver’s seat and into the body shop, building the cars instead of racing them. He strikes up an uneasy partnership with mercurial English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), whose demeanor has left him on the fringes of the racing world despite his natural talent. They don’t have a prayer of competing with the big racing teams from America and abroad, but when Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinces Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to get into the racing game, Carroll and Ken suddenly find themselves with the backing of the biggest car company in the game to make the sort of vehicle that could win the Le Mans. Incensed by a rebuffed attempt to buy Ferrari, Ford and his crew will stop at nothing to prove their dominance.
After flirting with the superhero genre as the director of the last two Wolverine films, “Ford v Ferrari” represents Mangold’s return to the biopic genre that arguably made his name with 2005’s “Walk the Line.” That movie could not have been more by-the-numbers as far as biopics (and especially musical biopics) go, and he seems equally risk-averse here. The script by Jason Keller and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is pretty standard biopic fare, focusing in on how Ken’s racing career jeopardizes both his body and his relationships. That’s contrasted with the more isolated Shelby, whose life was all about racing until it couldn’t be and who sees Ken as an opportunity to live vicariously and still get that thrill of the perfect lap, even if he has to watch it from the pit.
Damon does well as the straight man to Bale’s wild side, with a smooth southern drawl and an ache in his heart. His is the more nuanced performance, stuck between the politics of Ford’s boardroom, his love of racing and Ken’s rebellious streak, doing all he can to keep them on the road just a bit longer. Bale gets to be more ostentatious, employing his fiery temper whenever he sees fit regardless of the circumstance. He has the dangerous combination of being good and knowing it, making attempts to control his ego unlikely to lead anywhere positive. The two actors take the brunt of the screen time and earn it.
The script plays things a little fast and loose with the rules around the Le Mans (Ken takes breaks from time to time during the 24-hour race, but they don’t go into the rules surrounding how that works and who’s driving during those periods), but the visceral joy of driving seems to be right in Mangold’s wheelhouse. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and the editing team of Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt put you right on the pavement, zooming along inches above the ground. Each turn feels like it could be the last as the car careens at top speeds, cross-cutting to Ken’s feet as he downshifts to keep himself on the track. Racing sequences take up quite a bit of the film’s 150-minute runtime, but it’s a shrewd decision, as these high-octane scenes represent “Ford v Ferrari” at its very best. The human drama behind the wheel is a bit uneven.
At its core, Mangold seems most interested in telling a story about American exceptionalism and the idea that no mountain is too high if you have the resources to climb it. It’s not all rah-rah “America first” propaganda, in part because most of the Ford executives (specifically Josh Lucas’ Leo Beebe) are incompetent idiots, but the Italians still come off as snooty foreigners in a way that feels more than a little jingoistic. Sure, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) is pretty rude to the Ford folks when they come by to try and merge with his company, but from a capital perspective, it’s the equivalent of a tiny country like Lichtenstein being cast as the villain against a world superpower for not willingly giving up their natural resources. You could argue that Caroll and Ken are more interested in winning the race and sticking it to the empty suits trying to control them than they are embarrassing the Italians, but the script doesn’t entirely agree. Even when the conflict clearly shifts to being more about Caroll and Ken versus the Ford executives, Mangold still can’t resist cutting over to Ferrari’s shadowy, scowling visage. It ends up muddling things a bit too much, making the climactic race serve a few too many masters and taking away from the thrill and adrenaline of the race itself.
“Ford v Ferrari” seems content to glide by on the charisma of its two leads and the sensation of the race, filling in the background with your average biopic fodder. But even without the most dynamite material, Mangold still has a lot of talent and has succeeded in making an easy to watch (if overlong) story of two men’s attempt to take on the rest of the racing world. “Ford v Ferrari” is an easy recommendation for race fans and should be a huge hit for the over-50 set. It feels like old-school filmmaking in that respect – an inspirational sports movie in the vein of “Hoosiers” or “Rudy” with a bit of a modern spin. I don’t expect “Ford v Ferrari” to stand the test of time; it’s likely to be the sort of film that comes and goes, collecting some Oscar nominations and generally fading into film history without making a long-term dent in the industry. It’s worth seeing on the biggest screen possible (especially with a powerful sound system), but ultimately, it excels more as a thrill ride than a wholly satisfying cinematic experience.
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Remo Girone, JJ Feild, Adam Mayfield
Director: James Mangold