Ford v Ferrari harkens back to a time when race cars were an art form, and drivers served as eccentric artists who suffered for the craft. Races stretched for 24 hours, with men stuffed into road-bound rockets that hurtled along at over 200MPH. Like so many expressions of poetry, it was savage, beautiful, and bewildering. Ford v Ferrari shows us a team of wild-eyed kooks who don’t just want to run the marathon. They want to win it in style.
It’s the mid-60s, and racing is dominated by Enzo Ferrari and his stable of sleek, metal stallions. This pursuit of perfection leaves his company in a financial bind, and soon Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) comes calling with a buyout offer. Ferrari smugly dismisses Ford as a maker of ugly cars in ugly factories–a mediocre man stuck in his grandfather’s shadow. Incensed, Ford resolves to build a team of engineers and drivers to whoop Ferrari’s ass, whatever the cost.
This quest takes him to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former hotshot driver who now cranks out his own high-end sports cars. Shelby brings in a quirky team to build the ultimate race car, and recruits Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to lead the drivers. Petulant and blunt, Miles quickly tells Shelby that his mission will lead to failure, disaster, or all of the above. Shelby’s offer is lucrative, leaving the cash-strapped Miles no choice but to come aboard.
This sets up much of the film’s conflict, between the passionate eccentrics who race the cars and the suits who supply the bottomless wallet. Savvy and charismatic, Shelby makes a great face guy for Ford’s pursuit. Miles, however, comes across as scorching, profane, and bull-headed. He immediately runs afoul of several executives at Ford, and they vow to keep him off the track. For the whole thing to stay afloat, Shelby has to please a kitchen crowded with cooks.
Though it clocks in at 152 minutes, Ford stays exciting from start to finish. Director James Mangold keeps the action coherent. We always know which cars are where in the race, and how many laps are left to go. That’s no small feat: Many of these races move at hundreds of miles per hour on winding roads, at night, or in the rain. If this movie doesn’t nab Oscar nominations for its directing and editing, I’ll be shocked.
As McCartney and Lennon, Damon and Bale deliver knock-out performances. Few play the grinning golden boy like Damon, and he nails it as the All-American Shelby. Bale has a well-earned reputation as a boiling stewpot, making him a perfect fit for the mercurial Miles. Both stars elevate their roles with genuine warmth and relatability. Also, Tracy Letts is a strong presence as a blustery, ego-centric Henry Ford II.
It’s no coincidence that Ford v Ferrari takes place during the Space Race. At its zenith, President Kennedy resolved that the United States would land a man on the moon and bring him back. He didn’t know how it would be done, just that it would be. That same competitive fearlessness ripples throughout this film, and makes it edgy and engrossing throughout. Ford v Ferrari is a great film about a group of artisans who came together to make something unforgettable.
152 min. PG-13.