It isn’t necessary to be a fan (even a casual one) of fast cars that race in circles for hours to be enthralled by the story that unfolds in 20th Century Fox’s Ford v Ferrari. Director James Mangold (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma) revs up the action for this high-octane dramatic thriller based on a true story, placing viewers behind the wheel with Christian Bale as he hurtles around the racetrack.
Mangold and screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller craft a detailed, engaging tale of ingenuity, loyalty, heartbreak, and an all-consuming passion for cars. Stunning, heart-pounding racing sequences complement rather than compete with the character development, and the track itself comes to feel as if it’s a living, breathing entity.
The film kicks off in the early 1960s with Ford sales in a slump. Their tried and true family car isn’t sexy enough for the younger generation of drivers, and it’s decided the company’s best option is to approach Enzo Ferrari about buying out his company. History confirms that deal was never made, and CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) was insulted by the way Enzo treated his company (and the Ford family legacy) during the negotiations.
Angry and frustrated, Henry Ford and his executive team which includes marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) opt to beat Enzo Ferrari on what’s become his home turf. Ford will come up with a car that can outrace Ferrari on the track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Carroll Shelby’s (Matt Damon) a talented race car driver who competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans but was forced into retirement due to a heart condition. No longer able to compete on the track, Carroll’s opened up his own shop and is designing and selling cars. Ford and his team believe he’s the perfect man to design a race car capable of beating Ferrari.
Carroll’s up to the challenge, recruiting his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as the man to take the wheel and square off with Ferrari on the track. Ken’s a hothead and an acquired taste, yet Carroll firmly believes this British family man with oil running through his veins is the ticket to taking down Ferrari. His uncanny ability to detect the tiniest defect in the hum of an engine or anticipate what a motor’s capable of make him a vital member of Carroll’s team. However, the Ford execs aren’t sold on Ken and much of Ford v Ferrari focuses on Carroll’s attempts to keep the best man for the job in the job, despite his inability to toe the company line.
Director Mangold’s drama is brilliantly cast. The team of Christian Bale and Matt Damon should take this onscreen partnership further and pair up for a dysfunctional buddy comedy, so perfect is their chemistry. There are shades of that sort of comedy within Ford v Ferrari, although the drama outweighs the humor – as it should in this case. The lighthearted moments, including a terrific scene involving produce used as weapons, provide breathers between the adrenaline-pumping action sequences.
Christian Bale continues his deep dive into characters that require a significant change in his weight. Bale promises this will be his last after dropping pounds to portray the lanky, tell-it-like-it-is mechanic and driver. Ken doesn’t possess a filter and his mouth gets him into trouble with the suits at Ford but, fortunately, he has both his loving wife, Mollie (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe), and Carroll Shelby to apply the brakes on and keep Ken’s worst instincts in check.
Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby is more of a diplomat but equally obsessed with building the perfect car to defeat Ferrari. He plays the game better than Ken and serves as his protector against their corporate overlords, placing himself as a buffer between the demands of Ford Motor Co. and the needs of his team and Ken.
Oscar winners Damon and Bale deliver outstanding, nuanced performances in this true underdog story. There’s also not a false step among the supporting cast that includes Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe, Josh Lucas (perfect in his portrayal of a smarmy Ford executive), and Ray McKinnon.
20th Century Fox’s Ford v Ferrari is an inspirational film, a surprisingly uplifting movie that’ll put you through the emotional wringer. Bale and Damon make this 2019 retelling of a pivotal time in the auto industry a ride worth taking.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and peril
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Running Time: 152 minutes